Thu, Jul 19, 2018 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Let Palace Museum-Taiwan link go

National Palace Museum Director Chen Chi-nan (陳其南) on Monday outlined his plans for introducing a new Taiwan-centric perspective at the institution.

While Chen has yet to clarify how he intends to flesh out his vision, some points do bear raising.

To many, the museum is inextricably linked to China and specifically to Beijing, where its original incarnation remains, Chen said, characterizing the presence of the museum’s collection in Taiwan as something of a historical accident.

It is important to be realistic about what the museum and its collection represents, what it means to Taiwan and Taiwanese, and to separate it from politics.

The museum was established in 1925 as the Palace Museum in Beijing. In the early 1930s, much of the original collection was crated and moved to Shanghai and then to Nanjing to protect it from the ravages of war, before the decision was made to send it to Taiwan when the nationalists were defeated by the communists in the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

Slightly fewer than one-quarter of the crated items were sent over; the rest remained in China.

The collection is one of the world’s most important single collections of ancient and imperial Chinese art and cultural artifacts. It is invaluable not just for the millions of international and Taiwanese visitors to the museum every year, but also for research and conservation.

The collection is of course steeped in Chinese history and culture, as is Taiwan. So what speaks uniquely of the Taiwanese experience? Should it be limited to the Aboriginal cultures and people who originally inhabited — and still inhabit — the nation? Should it include the Chinese merchants and farmers who sailed across the Taiwan Strait three centuries ago? What about the exiled Chinese who arrived with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in 1949?

Having spent the past 70 years stored and exhibited in Taiwan with an intimate connection to the history of the majority of Taiwanese, is there any reason — other than politics — to suggest that the collection has no connection to Taiwan or the experience of Taiwanese?

To put it a different way, how could someone interpret ancient Neolithic nephrite ritual jades from the Taiwanese perspective? How could someone interpret Song Dynasty ru, ding, longquan or jun ware ceramics from a Taiwanese perspective? How about Tibetan Buddhist artifacts or pre-imperial Chinese ritual bronzes?

Chen’s mention of the British Museum is an interesting comparison, albeit not necessarily supportive of his argument.

The British Museum houses important artifacts from around the world and is a major institution for the research and conservation of the world’s cultural heritage. The existence of the collection as a whole speaks of the reach and might of the British Empire when considerably different values informed the plunder of other countries’ heritages. The individual collections are not interpreted from the perspective of Britons, past or present.

Taiwan now has its own identity and sovereignty. The National Palace Museum’s collection is what it is, and it is intricately linked with the experience, culture and history of a large percentage of Taiwanese.

There are other museums in Taiwan that speak of the Aboriginal experience and the nation’s history.

It is pointless to deny the Chinese cultural and historical elements to Taiwanese culture. This does not in any way beholden Taiwanese to the past, and it certainly does not beholden them to the Chinese Communist Party, which also does not represent the breadth of Chinese culture and history.

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