Taiwan Gets a New International-Class Museum

A majestic structure in the shape of a ballet dancer stands in a lake in what used to be sugar cane fields in southwest Taiwan. This is the southern branch of the National Palace Museum (NPM), which opened in Chiayi on December 29 after a journey of 14 years and an investment of NT$7.934 billion (S$240.1 million).

A star-studded cast attended the opening – President Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s Prime Minister and many members of his cabinet, Buddhist monks, Hong Kong star Jackie Chan and foreign dignitaries from the museum world, including Hans-Martin Hinz, president of the International Council of Museums.

“This is the perfect birthday present for the 90th anniversary of the Palace Museum and the people of Taiwan and Asia,” Hinz, whose council represents 35,000 members in 140 countries, told the audience. “This museum focuses on international themes and brings foreign art to Taiwan. Museums are places for learning, entertainment and reconciliation.”

Set in a 70-hectare park, the new facility is the Museum of Asian Art and Culture and will show exhibits from Korea, Japan, India and other countries of Asia, as well as those from Japan. That distinguishes it from the main museum in Taipei, built in 1965, which houses more than 600,000 pieces brought from the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1948 and 1949.

The new edifice’s first exhibitions include Buddhist art, Imari porcelainware from Japan, South Asian costumes, Asian tea culture, Islamic jade, Goryeo Celadon ceramics from South Korea and blue and white porcelain from the Ming dynasty of China.

“This will become Asia’s first-ever big-scale national museum focusing on Asian art and culture and one that integrates the Asian theme with the local culture of Taiwan,” according to a statement from the national museum.

Appeal to Rival Louvre

“The Northern and Southern branches will carefully plan their exhibitions, in tandem with the planning of cultural and creative merchandise, creating an appeal that will rival that of the Louvre Museum and the Louvre-Lens. This will encourage visitors to Taiwan to visit both museums.”

The main museum attracts 5.4 million visitors a year, making it the seventh most popular museum in the world. It is the island’s top tourist attraction.

The theme of the new museum was set in the opening ceremony. It started with three songs from a choir of Aboriginal children, two in their Bunong language and one in Mandarin, followed by a piece from a Beijing Opera troupe. The message was: Taiwan’s culture includes both that which came from China and that of its original inhabitants.

Long history

The project was first proposed in 2001, during the first administration of Chen Shui-bian, the first Democratic Progressive Party president, and approved in 2004. The county government of Chiayi offered the land to the government, arguing that, as a poor and backward area, it deserved such a facility in the name of fairness – most of Taiwan’s museums are in the north, around Taipei.

The DPP’s power base is in central and southern Taiwan. In terms of transport, logistics and population, Chiayi was not ideal. A Kuomintang (KMT) government would probably have chosen another place.

The contract for the building was awarded to the US architect Antoine Predock, with completion set for 2008. The lake was built according to Predock’s design.

But the work stopped because of a contractual dispute, with the national museum saying Predock had exceeded the budget. He went to court to demand compensation. Then, August 2009, Typhoon Morakot devastated Taiwan, killing 461 people and causing damage worth NT$110 billion, with floods 10.3 meters high on the construction site.

In 2010, the national museum completed a second project revision and awarded the construction to Kris Yao, a famous Taiwan architect, with a construction budget of NT$7.934 billion. So at the opening, there was a sense of exhilaration and relief that the long wait was over.

“During the course of the project, there were two presidents, five NPM directors and two county chiefs of Chiayi,” commented the China Times.

Artistic design

Kris Yao chose a modernist design completely different from the classical Chinese lines of the national museum in Taipei which reflected the nature of its exhibits.

Yao said the design included three techniques of Chinese ink wash painting – flying white, thick dark ink and applying colours to drawings. “These create the three masses which symbolize the three historic Asian civilisations of China, India and Persia,” he said.

“Mr Yao’s inspiration for the building is Chinese calligraphy,” said Kuo-Chien Shen, the principal of the design team for the project in Yao’s company. “The thick ink forms the dark solid mass which hosts the exhibition rooms, where natural lighting needs to be eliminated. The half-dry stroke is the most transparent building mass, hosting the café, library and offices. Finally, the smearing stroke is the courtyard bamboo garden in between, creating an outdoor promenade plaza for the visitors.”

It is a very complicated structure with more than 36,000 aluminium plates as its exterior skin,” he said. The exterior wall pattern is a pixilation of a dragon pattern selected from a Ch’in dynasty bronze ware.

It was a considerable engineering challenge. Yao was given the site with the lake already built. The Chiayi area is subject to earthquakes, typhoons and heavy rain during the summer. Thus the floor level of the museum buildings is 11 meters, higher than the heaviest rain of the past 200 years. There were also strict environmental requirements which he had to meet.

The museum covers 20 hectares, with a floor area of 38,413 square meters on four floors.

Most visitors will arrive by crossing a 140-meter bridge over the lake. This gives them a spectacular view of the structure.

Meaning to Chiayi

. “The citizens of Chiayi have waited for this day for more than 10 years and become even more determined over that time that art and culture be the focus of development in the county,” said Chang Hwa-kuan, county magistrate of Chiayi. It had asked for the project because it was poor and backward and needed such a big project to revitalise its economy.

The museum is 15 minutes by bus from the Chiayi station of Taiwan’s High-Speed Railway. That will be the point of access for most visitors. Others will come by private car or tour bus. The museum is expecting at least 1.2 million visitors a year during the early years.

In anticipation, more than 10 hotels are being built in the area, with investment of more than NT$10 billion, as well as other facilities for visitors.

The opening means that the three major cities of south Taiwan – Kaohsiung, Tainan and Chiayi – all have major museums and cultural events and can attract domestic and foreign visitors who want this kind of holiday.

International significance

In the context of Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation in the world, the NPM has a special importance. The country has diplomatic relations with 22 countries; this figure may fall if DPP candidate Tsai Ying-wen wins the presidency and Beijing puts pressure on some of them to punish her for refusing to accept the ‘1992 consensus’ that it regards as essential for cross-straits relations.

But, while President Ma and members of his government can visit few countries, the national museum staff and their art treasures are welcome everywhere. The museum is the best single item of soft power for Taiwan at home and abroad.

It has guarded the pieces brought from the mainland with great care – while those in Beijing ran the risk of being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

The opening ceremony was attended by Hinz and other senior members of the world museum community from Europe, North America and Japan. Leaders of their governments would not have dared to come.

“This museum focuses on international themes,” said Hinz. “It will bring foreign art to Taiwan.” It will help make the island part of the world community – just what the government wants.

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Mark O’Neill is author of “The Miraculous Story of China’s Two Palace Museums,” just published in traditional Chinese and English by Joint Publishing of Hong Kong. The two versions are available in the company and large bookshops in Hong Kong)