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Professor Adventure

By KATJA SCHÖNHERR

Erwin Emmerling holds the Chair for Restoration, Art Technology and Conservation Science at the TU Munich. When he isn't teaching, he assists, for example, in the reconstruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

Professor Adventure© Carl Montgomery - Wikimedia CommonsIn Afghanistan, Erwin Emmerling helps reconstruct famous monuments
Erwin Emmerling leads a double life. He heads the Chair for Restoration, Art Technology and Conservation Science at the architectural department of the TU Munich - and whenever he can, he takes off: to China, to attend to the restoration of the terracotta army, or to Afghanistan to assist in reconstructing the famous Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley. Because he loves historic monuments, and because his students can learn from the souvenirs he brings back and from his experience. "It may sound a little melodramatic, but I believe that where cultural monuments are lost, societal development also comes to an end and a process of brutalisation begins."

Emmerling, born in 1952 in Würzburg, is a large man with a narrow face, brown hair and a side parting. His voice is deep, and he speaks in the same way he presumably also works as a restorer: he exposes things only very cautiously, very accurately. Every sentence is precise and to the point. From his travels he often brings back a few very special pieces of earth for his students in Munich; the budding restorers then examine clay plaster particles and thereby gain insights into the work that their professor does and that they themselves may someday do. About eight times a year, Emmerling heads off to the destroyed Buddha statues in one of Afghanistan's most fertile regions. But it would never occur to him to take his students along: "The security risks are simply too high. But if someone chooses to help us on site once they have completed their degree, I am of course very pleased."

His students will later work in palaces and museums, state offices for the preservation of historic monuments or other research institutions. Many graduates also work as freelancers, travelling from project to project. Like Emmerling, their work will probably take many of them abroad, where as specialists they will try to rescue humanity's cultural monuments. How quickly treasures that have endured for thousands of years can be destroyed was made apparent in 2001 in an especially painful manner: in that traumatic year, the two statues that had long been part of UNESCO's world cultural heritage were destroyed in the central Afghan valley. 53 and 35 metres high, they were constructed in the sixth century in the high cliff face on the north side of the valley. "In the Buddhist world they held the same significance that Rome as an antique, holy city holds for us", explains Emmerling.

He is glad that he can now contribute to their reconstruction. After the end of the Taliban rule, UNESCO conducted a survey of the situation in the valley. Gradually, various teams of restorers were permitted to enter the area; Emmerling has been among them since 2004. A lot has happened since then: the remnants on the cliff face have been secured, rock fragments salvaged, wall paintings conserved, and the feet of the "great Buddha" unearthed. Erwin Emmerling analyses the Buddha pieces that he and other restorers retrieve from the rubble. Smaller elements he takes back to Germany if he lacks the equipment to thoroughly examine them on location. With the help of his students, he analyses the particles for remnants of colour and binding agents; clay was enriched with egg, plant fibres, or animal hairs in order to attach it to the wall. "To be able to rebuild, we have to understand the composition of the materials."

Scanning electron microscopes, neutron sources or x-ray systems - these are the kinds of equipment used in Munich to understand the complex interrelationships within artworks, for example in the materials of a painting. One of the main areas of interest at the institute is the use of colourants. Several projects investigate and document how artists used pigments in various centuries. The students examine the specific quality of the colouring, they analyse painting techniques and how the colours have altered. Restoring an object or conserving it for the future is only possible with detailed knowledge of its original condition. This requires close collaboration with natural scientists, for example chemists - interdisciplinarity is very important. "Our aim is to train autonomous restorers", says Emmerling, who currently supervises around 70 students.

Prospective students of Restoration, Art Technology and Conservation Science must pass an entrance examination and present proof of at least 12 months work placement in a restoration workshop, for example at a museum or an office for the protection of public monuments. "After all, the profession of a restorer requires a lot of tricks of the trade that cannot be taught at university", says Emmerling. He himself completed his Diplom as a restorer in Stuttgart in 1977; after that he worked freelance for many years and later became head restorer at the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Historic Buildings and Monuments. In 1998 he was appointed professor at the TU in Munich.

But restorers like Emmerling not only have to know what art consists of at its core - they also have to cope with the external circumstances of the places where the monuments happen to be located. In Afghanistan that can mean all kinds of limitations: the hotel in the valley of the statues for example often only has electricity for one hour a day - "on a good day". And as if it were simply common knowledge, Emmerling recounts that one should only walk where there are other human or animal tracks. "Mine-clearing has been completed, but the area will probably never be one hundred percent safe." The professor has been familiar with precautions like this at least since he became involved in restoration work in Croatia shortly after the civil war. He is willing to put himself in danger for his objects because the cultural treasures of human history are more to Erwin Emmerling than mere objects of work. "Others may be interested in cars and motorcycles - I live for historic monuments."

From DIE ZEIT :: 26.08.2010