The Art of Collecting
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CHIAYI COUNTY, TAIWAN — Taiwan has a new National Palace Museum. This time around, it is not just about China.
Reflecting 16 years of political changes and concomitant rising Taiwan identity, the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum opened its doors to the public in September as Taiwan’s new government looks to play down its connections to China while moving toward greater engagement with the rest of Asia.
Unlike its namesake in Taipei, where Chinese culture takes center stage, the museum, based in the southwestern county of Chiayi, celebrates the interconnectedness and cross-pollination of Asian cultures over the centuries. Current exhibits employ motifs including goods such as textiles, ceramics and tea, as well as references to Buddhism and Islam, to highlight the shared heritage of the world’s most populous continent.
An 18th-century green embroidered damask coat featuring Ottoman design, Chinese fabric and Russian lining hangs among Javanese sarongs and royal attire from South Asia. A statue of a Maitreya Buddha from Pakistan stands adjacent to a bronze Buddha head from 17th-century Burma. Twelfth-century ceramic arhats from Korea’s Goryeo kingdom look quizzically across a hall at Edo-era tea ware from Japan.
“It’s a global view of Asia,” said Wang Shih-Sheng, the museum’s chief curator. “Most of our artifacts come from our collection in Taipei, but when planning the project, we decided to look at things from an Asian perspective.”
The Taipei museum opened in 1965 and was used by Taiwan’s Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek as a source of local legitimacy vis-à-vis Mao’s Communists, the victors of the Chinese civil war. The museum was also employed as a tool for imposing a Chinese identity upon Taiwan residents.
Along with the Nationalists came more than 600,000 artifacts from the Palace Museum in Beijing, which was founded in 1925, the year after China’s last emperor, Puyi, who had not held the title of emperor since a short-lived restoration to the throne in 1917, was evicted from the Forbidden City. Before his expulsion, it became apparent that he and his court were selling off national treasures to survive.
Most of the items that survived the difficult voyage to Taiwan were produced by Chinese kingdoms and dynasties or nearby kingdoms, such as Tibet, who paid tribute to and traded with their Chinese neighbors.
Other items, however, came from further afield. Of little political use to the Nationalists, they took on a new significance after the election of Chen Shui- bian to the presidency of the Republic of China, as Taiwan has been called since 1945.
Mr. Chen was a member of the Democratic Progress Party, which sits at the center of the “pan-green” political camp in Taiwan’s politics that emphasizes Taiwan’s unique identity and prefers to keep the country self-determined. The party’s rise in the 2000 elections added a new voice to Taiwan’s identity politics in Taipei’s halls of power. By 2003, the idea of a new and very different branch of the National Palace Museum gained traction among pan-greens.
The man assigned to coordinate across ministries to establish the museum was Lin Sheng-Fong, who was Minister of State at the time and is now an associate professor of architecture at Shih Chien University in Taipei.
“There was a common belief that the Taipei Palace Museum had a huge collection and only a fraction of it was displayed,” Mr Lin said. “So we could create a second palace museum using the underdisplayed collection.”
Politicians in the sinocentric “pan-blue” camp that primarily includes the Nationalists were less enthusiastic, as were bureaucrats in the Taipei museum, Mr. Lin said. Deliberations concluded with Chiayi as the museum’s site and “Formosa in the great era of navigation” as its theme, he said.
A dispute with the initial architect, Antoine Predock, resulted in the stalling of the project. It restarted in 2010 with the involvement of the Taipei architect Kris Yao, who inherited a half-started project that presented several constraints, including an already-constructed shoreline on an artificial lake. Mr. Yao created a new design for the museum inspired by three primary strokes in Chinese calligraphy: one thick, one dry and one watery and smeared.
“It’s an abstraction of a very basic Chinese art translated into architecture,” Mr. Yao said.
The portion of the building representing the thick stroke contains the museum’s archive and exhibition area, which require minimal natural light to protect its contents. The dry stroke lets natural light in, and comprises the building’s exoskeleton, lobby and offices. The smeared stroke, embodying penetration, is composed of walking areas and the bridge that leads over the lake.
Inspired by his love of ancient Chinese bronzes, especially those of the Shang dynasty, Mr. Yao said he had digitized ancient dragon and cloud patterns for the scaly surface of the “thick stroke” portion of the building.
“It’s not a building, per se, it’s a form,” Mr. Yao said. “It sits on a totally green plain and is black and white.”
The museum’s prominence on Chiayi’s verdant coastal plain is a striking departure from the Taipei museum, a Chinese-style palace built into the side of a mountain. In his recent book “The Miraculous History of China’s Two Palace Museums,” the journalist Mark O’Neill wrote of Chiang’s demands for the National Palace Museum:
“The government wanted not only a traditional Chinese design that matched the art pieces inside but also a museum with the most modern conservation systems; it had to protect the pieces from earthquakes, typhoons, humidity, insects and air raids.”
A visit to the Taipei museum may leave visitors feeling adrift in the vast breadth of China’s geography and history. The Chiayi museum’s handful of exhibition rooms shrink both time and space, using Asia’s historical commercial and cultural exchanges, themselves often inseparable, to weave a regional patchwork that is neither exhaustive, nor exhausting. China’s important influence is not ignored, nor is it central to the museum.
Using the example of tea — a beverage that spread across ancient Asian trading routes — Ms. Wang expounded upon the shared differences of the museum’s exhibits.
“You can trace tea culture back to the Tang dynasty,” she said. “After arriving in other parts of Asia, it evolved because of local habits or culture,” with Tibetans adding yak butter or the Japanese grinding it to make matcha.
With the aim of creating the world’s top pan-Asian museum, Ms. Wang said the National Palace Museum would bring exhibitions in from other Asian collections around the world.
The ceramics hall, for example, currently displays Imari porcelain wares on loan from the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka. Future exhibitions will bring Japanese national treasures from the Tokyo National Museum and Kyushu National Museum, as well as the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, she said.
Teresa Chiang, a Chiayi native visiting the museum with her parents and four-year-old daughter, said her first visit had left her feeling more connected to other Asian cultures. “At the Taipei museum you can’t enjoy Korean or Japanese culture,” she said. “Here you can see artifacts from all over Asia — I think it’s amazing.”