Magazine article The Middle East

Getty Center Offers Expertise to Preserve Tunisia's Mosaics

Magazine article The Middle East

Getty Center Offers Expertise to Preserve Tunisia's Mosaics

Article excerpt

Pat McDonnell Twair reports from California on how American oil money could help preserve an important part of the Middle East's cultural heritage.

Since it opened to the public in December 1997, the billion dollar Getty Centre has become the architectural wonder or blunder of southern California. While some critics marvel at its stark design, others call the complex of white stone and glass structures designed by New York architect Richard Mejer an eyesore. Perched atop the Santa Monica Mountains with a panoramic view of the Pacific, the Getty's museums and restaurants have drawn more than two million visitors during its first year of operations.

One building, however, is off limits to tourists. It houses the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), which is sponsoring research and projects to protect man's cultural heritage. It is an ambitious mission that has sent experts to Tanzania to preserve hominid footprints and to Israel to conserve a 19th century Canaanite arch.

In March 1997, the GCI joined forces with Tunisia's National Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage to preserve its Roman mosaics, which most art historians agree rank among the finest produced in antiquity. GCI's Dr. Gaetano Palumbo discussed the three-year project with The Middle East.

Contrary to traditional conservation procedures in which Roman and Byzantine mosaics were removed and stored or exhibited in museums, Dr Palumbo said the GCI has introduced the practice of conservation in situ. "We are convinced," he explained, "that it is preferable to leave the mosaic on the site so as to maintain its cultural context as well as to avoid traumatic interventions [during its removal]."

In Tunisia, the GCI is concentrating on Utica, a site that contains the remains of several Roman villas with largely intact mosaic floors.

"Our work is twofold," Dr Palumbo stressed. …

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