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What’s at stake in digitising heritage sites such as the Lascaux cave?

28 November 2016

From next month you will once again be able to visit one of the greatest monuments of palaeolithic art, the painted caves of Lascaux in the Dordogne, closed to the public since 1963. Except that you won’t. At a cost of €57 million, what is about to open is not the first, nor the second, but the third and most elaborate attempt to give people access to something that their desire to see almost destroyed. ‘Lascaux 4’, to use the working title of the Centre International de l’Art Pariétal, exemplifies the paradox of tourism, and raises in acute form the question of whether reality can ever be rendered by reproduction, truth by imitation. Now that digital technology can replicate any object with minute accuracy, the whole basis of modern museology, which rests on the authenticity of the object, is eroded.

In September 1940, four boys decided to explore a hole that a fallen tree had opened in the hillside above the town of Montignac. This was by no means the first prehistoric painted cave to be discovered in this part of France, but the quality of the work was exceptional. After the war, following archaeologically insensitive interventions including metal staircases and air conditioning, Lascaux became a major tourist attraction. But the thousands of visitors disrupted the precious microclimate that had kept the images pristine for some 20,000 years – my own boyish breath contributed to the damage – and the pigments suffered. Tourism had brought prosperity to the region, but the paintings that people had come to see developed mould, and even mushrooms. As Professor Yves Coppens, chair of the scientific committee overseeing the current project, has said, ‘There was a panic.’ In 1963 the caves were closed completely; even today only a few experts are allowed entry.

Yet the mysterious images of Lascaux that run throughout the 200 metres of chambers, the great bulls, bison, deer, and horses, accompanied by abstract but clearly intentional patterns and marks, had entered the public imagination. In 1979, though closed, Lascaux became a UNESCO world heritage site. So in 1983, on the same hillside, Lascaux 2 opened. This was a careful facsimile, moulded in concrete and painted as exactly as possible, and then buried. Although it reproduced approximately 90 per cent of the paintings, Lascaux 2 only represented part of the cave: the Hall of the Bulls and the Painted Gallery. It has had more than 10 million visitors and become a national monument in its own right.

As the techniques of 3D and digital scanning have improved, it has become possible to exploit Lascaux’s reputation even further, by generating a third Lascaux that not only reproduces more of the cave, but since 2012 has been on a world tour as a set of free-standing panels.

Painter at work. © Casson Mann 2016

Lascaux 4, however, takes the art of facsimile to an altogether higher level. The new, complete reproduction of the entire, three-armed cave has been constructed from casts of the digitally surveyed walls, supported by ribbed metal frames, with the interior surfaces painted by a team of 25 scenic artists from the Atelier des Fac-Similés du Périgord. Also buried in the hillside, Lascaux 4 and its accompanying interpretative spaces are housed in an exquisite and radical complex designed by the Norwegian architects, Snøhetta. They have used the metaphor of a geological fault and cut a long line in the hillside, concealing most of the structure. Once inside, a full-height, top-lit corridor runs along the length of the building, this time like a crevasse whose angled walls of polished and engraved concrete recall Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. The effect will be gentler once the vegetation has grown back over the scar in the hillside.

While the lead architects are Norwegian, the ‘scenography’ comes courtesy of British design team Casson Mann, which was responsible for installing galleries at, among others, the V&A, the Science Museum, the Churchill War Rooms and, most recently, the First World War galleries at the Imperial War Museum. They have also worked in Moscow, New York,  and Philadelphia. Snøhetta’s on-site architect, Rune Veslegard, stresses the importance of appointing architects and scenographers at the same time, and of their working closely together: ‘We really have to give the visitor the sense of discovering the cave for the first time. There has to be a unity between architecture and scenography in the process.’

Lascaux 4 facsimile. © Casson Mann 2016

Taking me on a tour through the soon-to-be-completed installation, Dinah Casson explains that the intention is for the visitor to experience the cave as it was in September 1940. The lighting will be as discreet as possible, the acoustics, temperature, and humidity the same as in the original cave. Guided in parties of up to 30, visitors will be given an architectonic induction. A lift takes them above ground to give a view of the valley below; from the open air they walk down a long slope past the recorded sounds of the four boys and their dog, past a CGI rendition of the landscape of 20,000 years ago, and into the cave.

There is an explicit tension between the uncompromisingly contemporary architecture – abstract, planar, and modelled by light – and the facsimile that it frames. And though the recreated spaces are ‘truer’ and more complete than their predecessors, there have still been compromises. The wheelchair-friendly floor is smooth, and because of the problems of levels and circulation, most visitors will have to use a modern connecting passage at one point to complete the circuit.

Render showing the interior of the Centre International de l’Art Pariétal, designed by Snøhetta. © Casson Mann 2016

As the project’s insistent use of the word facsimile shows, there is no attempt to pretend that Lascaux 4 is anything but a reproduction, even if the use of light, sound, temperature, and humidity does seek to create the atmosphere of 1940. At Lascaux, the conditions of the original cave mean that there is no choice. As Casson says, ‘You see this, or you see nothing.’ Sadly, I do not remember enough to compare what I saw of the original in the 1950s with what is offered now, but one does quickly forget this is a simulacrum. For Casson, there is an unspoken contract between the designers, curators and visitors, based on trust. ‘The minute one small omission, one bit of wool over the eyes, one bit of distortion is detected that trust disappears.’ But if it is presented as a facsimile, ‘by coming clean, the contract is upheld’.

It is in this context that Lascaux 4 has to be understood. As Casson says, ‘The important thing is to hold on to the mystery – there are no ultimate answers. There are no labels, because we can’t write them.’ The principle that Casson Mann applied was ‘experience first, interpretation afterwards’. There will be a human guide in the ‘cave’, but the real business of interpretation begins afterwards. There will be no texts or panels. Instead, visitors are equipped with a companion de visite, a high-tech, handheld tablet with headphones. Cunningly, the device needs two hands to operate, thus hindering the visitor’s wish to use their own camera or smartphone – and in any case, chosen images are stored for you to access from home. External media will be blocked as far as possible.

The device comes into its own when, after a breather in an open courtyard, visitors are let loose into the series of interpretative halls along the internal corridor. Most impressive of these is the Atelier de Lascaux, where the key wall paintings are once more presented, this time suspended in separate sections from the ceiling. Visitors can linger over the paintings, and explore information triggered by invisible links in the sections themselves. Other ‘interactives’ allow experiments with prehistoric painting methods and explain why the true caves are closed.

In further halls the opportunity to sit down compensates for a didactic, but confusing, ‘theatre’ presentation using images and filmed actors to describe the evolution of our understanding of cave painting since the mid 19th century. There is also a 3D cinema presentation revisiting the caves and linking their imagery to similar patterns and pictures right across the globe. A further room invites visitors to assemble their own digital collection of appropriate images from the corpus of world art. Finally, this being the 21st century, there is a gallery to show the response of contemporary artists to the caves.

Studio at Lascaux 4. Photo: © D Nidos-Département

The development of digital technology means that it would be possible to have a Lascaux in every town, but even though what we do see is a reproduction, such is the power of place that it would, ironically, lose its authenticity if it were elsewhere. The only thing that distinguishes the recreation of Viking York at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York (due to reopen in April 2017 after flood damage) from Madame Tussauds is that these replica people are on the site of the original archaeological dig.

Authenticity, however, is always contestable. No copy can be authentic, however scrupulous. As long ago as 1849 John Ruskin was inveighing against architectural restoration as ‘the most total destruction which a building can suffer, a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered, a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed’. Ruskin made plaster casts of the capitals of the Ducal Palace; the capitals we see today are not those he cast. Venice is a 19th-century reproduction of itself.

Digital scanning and 3D photography have made the appearance of authenticity ever easier to achieve. Adam Lowe, director of the Factum Foundation, which created a facsimile of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun in Luxor in 2014, has argued that digital restoration ‘is one of the most important emergent subjects – separating the task of preservation from that of restoration’. Yet it has its pitfalls. The Institute for Digital Archaeology’s recreation in Trafalgar Square last April of part of the arch of Palmyra, destroyed by ISIS, turned out to be a one-third scale copy; the use of photogrammetry gave details the appearance of having been carved in soap.

Yet the arch had an emotional resonance because of the context. Which raises the question: might absence be more powerful than a spurious presence? Alternatively, should we not, as at Lascaux, protect the precious original by constructing an alternative that could be more durable than its source? Not just a digital Domesday Book or a facsimile pharaoh, but whole cityscapes, like post-war Warsaw? As we slide uncertainly from imitation to copy, reproduction, facsimile, simulacrum, 3D documentation to rematerialisation, ‘reality’ remains elusive. But the aura of the original remains strong.

Lascaux 4 opens on 15 December in Montignac.

From the December issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.

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