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The camera pans around the statue of a headless Buddha sitting in an ancient cave. Then, as viewers watch, a vivid yellow head appears, revealing what the statue of Buddha looked like before looters destroyed it.

Art meets virtual reality in “Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan,” recently opened at the Sackler Gallery.

With the help of 3-D technology and innovation rarely seen in a museum exhibit, visitors explore a Chinese cave site despoiled by 20th-century looters.

The Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan, built during the sixth-century Northern Qi dynasty, represent one of the most significant devotional sites of ancient medieval China. These man-made temples, carved into the mountains of northern China, once held a stunning display of Buddhist devotional images and statues. Looters plundered the “Mountain of Echoing Halls” in the early 20th century, however, chiseling away sculptures and reliefs and selling the artwork on the black market. Some pieces still remain at the site, but much of the art is scattered all over the world.

“This show is really focusing on bringing the sculptures back together using digital techniques as well as good old-fashioned art historical study to reconstruct what the cave looked like before the damage occurred,” curator Keith Wilson said.

This traveling exhibition — developed through years of research and documentation — places 3-D digital reconstructions of missing objects alongside surviving objects, offering visitors an immersive, innovative way to explore the site. Wilson said the show also marks the first time many of the pieces have been seen together in about a century.

The exhibit’s layout takes museumgoers cave by cave, re-creating the temples and putting the sculptures in their original groupings. The display is simple and minimalistic, with the sculptures set starkly against a dark backdrop. Those wanting more information about the pieces and the site can seek out the exhibit’s various touch screens.

“By doing it through touch screens, it means we can minimize the labels on the walls and the objects themselves so it gives you a much cleaner presentation,” Wilson said. “It’s really just you and the sculpture.”

The touch screens are just one way the exhibit brilliantly incorporates technology. “Echoes of the Past” has another tag line that Washingtonians might see around town — “Buddha 2.0.” The point, Wilson noted, is to “give people a sense that it’s not just a Buddha sculpture show.”

That becomes clear with one look at the exhibit’s Digital Cave display, a 3-D installation piece that reconstructs one of Xiangtangshan’s temples. Some museum shows use technology in a way that feels unnecessary.

The Digital Cave is not one of them. The cave is designed from a laser-scanning process and developed by a modern artist to create a virtual reality that gives visitors a true sense of being inside the cave.

“We tried to strike that balance between real art and digital reality,” Wilson said. “And I think we’ve got the balance just about right.”

The eight-minute loop showcases everything from the wireframe 3-D scans used to produce a digital image of the site to the black and white photographs from the 1920s that reveal the damage of years of looting. The video installation then places the missing fragments — displayed as bright yellow 3-D images — in their original locations. “It’s truly virtual reality,” Wilson said.

“It’s very meditative, it takes you through the cave in several different ways and it really allows you to soak up the place and feel like you’re there,” Wilson said.

And while it makes for a spectacular central piece, the installation also speaks to the possibilities for art historians. In addition to making digital reconstructions, the 3-D scans can be used to make physical, incredibly accurate replicas. Wilson noted the researchers are in discussions with the site team to develop models for the caves’ restoration.

“I’m hoping the scholarly field will see that this offers a completely new way to re-create sites that have had problematic histories,” Wilson said.

The technology isn’t the only highlight of the exhibition, however. About 30 original pieces from the caves are on display, from sculptures of Buddha to winged monsters. These caves are the only sites in China that incorporate these monsters, Wilson said, and it’s another reminder of the extraordinary nature of Xiangtangshan.

“Nobody has heard of it,” Wilson said. Xiangtangshan “is not a household name. But, of course, one of our ambitions with a project like this is that people who haven’t heard about it come and understand why it is such an incredible place.”

The Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery organized “Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan.” The exhibition closes at the Sackler on July 31 and will travel to Dallas and San Diego.

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