The Rock Art Network Pilar Fatás Monforte
The Rock Art Network Pilar Fatás Monforte
The Rock Art Network Pilar Fatás Monforte
Pilar Fatás Monforte
Altamira and the New Technology for Public Access
30 April 2017

by Pilar Fatás Monforte
Director, National Museum and Research Center of Altamira

Since its discovery, the cave of Altamira has suffered many natural and artificial transformations that have led to it being in a very fragile state, a characteristic already intrinsic to any site with rock art. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the cave has been under special care and attention regarding its conservation, but many of these actions, even though they were considered the most appropriate at the time, started an irreversible process of deterioration of the rock art.

In the first half of the twentieth century, many arrangements were made inside the cave in order to avoid rock collapse and to prepare it for a comfortable tourist visit. The result was the irreversible transformation of the natural cavern into an easily visited monument for tourists (we may say that the cave was “urbanized”). Later, the high touristic exploitation during the 1960s and 1970s resulted in instability of its inner microclimate, which is one of the main factors affecting the conservation of the rock art in deep caves. Thus, the current conservation status is the result of these past actions.

Since the end of the 1970s, when the awareness of the necessity of conserving monuments grew in Spain, visits to the cave were restricted and openings and closures to the public were revised. At that time, the National Museum and Research Center of Altamira was created, and the management system of the cave changed. For the first time, it began to be integrally managed, being the institution responsible for conservation, scientific research, dissemination, and outreach.

But the demand to visit Altamira was great, and therefore different solutions were sought. It is necessary to point out that Altamira always had the precedent of what happened in Lascaux and its decisions on conservation, visitation regime, and even the decision to replace visits to the original cave with a replica. There were also antecedents of the reproduction of the cave of Altamira itself: at the Deutsches Museum of Munich, Dr. Erich Pietsch had reproduced 44 square meters of the polychrome ceiling; a copy of this was installed in the gardens of the National Archaeological Museum of Madrid; and in the 1990s Japan commissioned a project of partial reproduction of the cave for the Shima Villa, a theme park.

With all this precedent, finally a multidisciplinary plan for Altamira was developed by the Ministry of Culture, the owner and manager of the National Museum and Research Center and the cave of Altamira. The difference, and the key aspect of this project (if we compare it with previous proposals or projects), was to devise the reproduction as part of a broader museological project focused on conservation, research, and dissemination of the cave. Once the project was approved, a consortium of all the stakeholders and policy makers involved in Altamira was created in order to manage the investments and to oversee the development of the project.

The most visible result of the plan was the new Museum of Altamira, opened in 2001, which offers a new way of experiencing Altamira through an absolutely accurate replica. Using the results of the geological and archaeological research, the three-dimensional replica of Altamira re-creates the original cavern space as it was during Palaeolithic habitation rather than as it is today: that is, natural rock falls, and changes made in modern times, have been suppressed. The Neocave is a kind of conceptual restoration, impossible to make in the original cave. That is why we call it the Neocave, because it presents Altamira as it was fifteen thousand years ago, when it was inhabited and the bison were painted. The idea of the Neocave is not to be a substitute for the original cave but to be a means of transmitting the rock art values, a vehicle of knowledge, an open book to know Altamira; the aim is to provide the visitor a full experience and knowledge of Altamira as an exceptional site of rock art and as an originally inhabited place (fig. 1).

The key to the project is that the aim of the reproduction, and of the permanent exhibition as a whole, is not only entertainment but also education. For that, it is based on the rigor in its conceptualization and execution: the Neocave is the result of the archaeological and geological research, and its execution was made possible by a team of specialists in topography that created original technological procedures, without a scanning system, when this technology was not as developed as it is today. Finally, artists’ hands made art with a subtle color restoration to facilitate its reading. The rock was reproduced with millimeter accuracy and with an emphasis on chemistry: 80 percent of the material of the replica is limestone powder, and to reproduce the paintings, the artists used the original materials of charcoal, ochre, and water.

Altamira and the New Technology for Public Access Pilar Fatás Monforte The Rock Art Network Bradshaw Foundation Getty Conservation Institute
Figure 1
© Museo de Altamira
 
Altamira and the New Technology for Public Access Pilar Fatás Monforte The Rock Art Network Bradshaw Foundation Getty Conservation Institute
Figure 2
© Museo de Altamira
 
Altamira and the New Technology for Public Access Pilar Fatás Monforte The Rock Art Network Bradshaw Foundation Getty Conservation Institute
Figure 3
© Museo de Altamira
 
Altamira and the New Technology for Public Access Pilar Fatás Monforte The Rock Art Network Bradshaw Foundation Getty Conservation Institute
Figure 4
© Museo de Altamira
 
Altamira and the New Technology for Public Access Pilar Fatás Monforte The Rock Art Network Bradshaw Foundation Getty Conservation Institute
Figure 5
© Museo de Altamira
 
Altamira and the New Technology for Public Access Pilar Fatás Monforte The Rock Art Network Bradshaw Foundation Getty Conservation Institute
Figure 6
© Museo de Altamira

So, in the reproduction of the art, two aspects would be fundamental: the exact reproduction of the rock support, essential in the original creation, and the use of original pigments. Finally, it is the reproduction of not only the famous bison but also the entire ceiling and everything that is painted or engraved there, even what the eye can hardly see (figs. 2 and 3).

However, it is also helpful to see some negative points in its conceptualization. Some decisions have not been well received by visitors. For example, some believe the modern catwalk through the Neocave subtracts from the emotions and feelings of the visit. It was a desired result in order not to create a pastiche; it was also very helpful to include the lighting, the informative elements, and the installations, but acceptance was not unanimous.

The Neocave is part of a Museum of Altamira permanent exhibition on the Palaeolithic called “The Times of Altamira,” devoted to put into context the art. It is intended to provide answers to frequently asked questions such as “Who were the people that painted Altamira? When and how did they live? What was the landscape like then, and how did they use it? Which techniques were used in Altamira, and what was its use?” (fig. 4).

The proposal that visitors have a better knowledge of the cave, and of rock art in general, is also complemented with cultural activities that include guided tours (more than thirty a day), workshops on prehistory and art, temporary exhibitions not only on prehistoric subjects but also on new perspectives linking, for example, rock art with contemporary art.

It is also important to note the mediating role made by the museum guides. They facilitate the connection with the heritage, the knowledge, and the global experience, and they are the key to the fulfillment of the visitors’ expectations.

Activities are another of the strong points related to experiencing the museum. They are designed so that participants can observe, touch, manipulate, and experiment with the shapes and materials of Palaeolithic objects, check their effectiveness, and practice the tasks for which these objects were created. These activities are always collaborative workshops, implying the participation of the group not as mere spectators, observers, or listeners but as active participants in the activity, so as to provide a meaningful experience (fig. 5).

About the contextualization of the replica, it is located on the main building of the museum, near the site, surrounded by a landscape that includes the same vegetal species that were there during Palaeolithic times: a park of meadows and forests scattered with species such as birch, hazel, oak, wild pine, and chestnut. The Education Department develops different activities to value this landscape, included in a program in which sustainability values are presented.

Temporary exhibitions present the heritage and its values in different ways, even more innovative than through the permanent exhibition. In the past few years, a new line of exhibitions was implemented through which connections between contemporary art and Palaeolithic art are sought. At present, museum curators work with contemporary artists to create these new exhibitions (fig. 6).

The results of the new Museum of Altamira are highly satisfactory. The museum receives more than 250,000 visitors per year (285,000 in 2016), 80 percent are Spanish nationals, and it has become a model of visitation for other fragile heritage sites. Many other alternatives to experience rock art sites have been developed in recent years, such as the Ekain and Santimamiñe Caves, also in the north of Spain, or Lascaux and Chauvet, both in France. But it is not only a matter of the number of visitors. The last museum visitors study on the Museum of Altamira concludes that the visit to the Neocave obtained a mark of 5.91 out of 7 and the museum as a whole, 5.88 out of 7. There are other interesting data, such as the fact that people agree to the need to limit visits to the cave to ensure its preservation for the future.

By way of conclusion, the reproduction of the cave of Altamira in the permanent exhibition of the Museum of Altamira has contributed to a better understanding of Altamira by presenting more reliable scientific information and the transmission of all its values. It has also helped to reach a wider audience, both in numbers and in profile. Due to conservation reasons, at this moment only 250 people per year can visit the cave of Altamira. By explaining the reasons why Altamira cannot be visited en masse, we contribute to the awareness of people about the fragility of rock art and the need to involve our society in heritage preservation. This way, serious and rigorous alternatives will be accepted. The challenge is to excite though knowledge.

Activities are another of the strong points related to experiencing the museum. They are designed so that participants can observe, touch, manipulate, and experiment with the shapes and materials of Palaeolithic objects, check their effectiveness, and practice the tasks for which these objects were created. These activities are always collaborative workshops, implying the participation of the group not as mere spectators, observers, or listeners but as active participants in the activity, so as to provide a meaningful experience (fig. 5).

References

Lasheras Corruchaga, José Antonio, and Pilar Fatás Monforte. 2006. The new Museum of Altamira: Finding solutions to tourism pressure. In Of the Past, for the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation, Proceedings of the Conservation Theme at the 5th World Archaeological Congress, Washington, D.C., 22–26 June 2003, edited by Neville Agnew and Janet Bridgland, 177–83.

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