By: Mark O’Neill

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.”