Thu, Oct 18, 2007 - Page 15 News List

Say what you see, see what you say

Treasures of Southeast Asia' shows off some fine folk artifacts but suffers in that it doesn't create a context for the objects on display

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

The wide range of objects on display at the National History Museum provides a glimpse into Southeast Asian culture, but just a glimpse.


The terra-cotta warriors have come and gone and the National Museum of History (國立歷史博物館) is now devoting its first floor to folk artifacts from the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam in an exhibition called Treasures of Southeast Asia (菲越泰印:東南亞民俗文物展).

While the terra-cotta exhibit covered one area of China, Treasures of Southeast Asia spans four countries and several centuries. It's geared toward "new immigrants and other Taiwan citizens … so that they can gain an enhanced understanding of each other's cultural background and way of life," according to the museum's brochure.

A joint venture between the Museum of Filipino People, National Museums of Thailand, Museum of Vietnamese History, National Taiwan Museum, National Museum of Prehistory and National History Museum, the exhibit contains 226 cultural artifacts including tapestries, bowls, masks, puppets, stonework and sculpture. There is even a section on betel nuts.

The exhibition is arranged around seven themes - country, costume and society, food and life, traffic and transport, house and crafts, religions and beliefs and drama and performance - and includes a general introduction to each. The four countries are color-coded.

Though the introductory section that visitors pass through as they enter the exhibit presents a Chinese-language overview of each country, it fails to make a connection between these cultures and Taiwan. While masks in the drama and performance section are also accompanied by a few explanatory sentences, other artifacts are not.

Object number NMP-05 is called Loincloth. Though the label indicates the country of origin, its accompanying explanation is: "'Uninvaded disease' [sic] handmade textile of Bali, Indonesia." Such labeling leaves English-speakers baffled at best.

Exhibition notes

What: Treasures of Southeast Asia: Folk Artifacts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia (菲越泰印:東南亞民俗文物展)

Where: National Museum of History (國立歷史博物館), 49 Nanhai Rd, Taipei (台北市南海路49號)

When: Until Dec. 12

Details: The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm

Entrance: Adults NT$20; concession tickets are NT$10

The house and crafts section - which displays some finely woven textiles and delicately carved artifacts - features a Maranao Traditional Game. The caption reads: "A black wooden Maranao traditional toy with diagonal cuts at both ends and two rows of eight rounds of cavities on the surface." The display fails to explain how the game was played, when it was popular and why it is culturally significant.

Dates are also lacking from the majority of display items. In an exhibit spanning several centuries, this is problematic.

All these unanswered questions raise doubts about the museum's sincerity and professionalism. The extent to which this exhibit edifies the public is unclear. With expats from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia making up the majority of the foreign community in Taiwan and in light of the country's Taiwan's shaky human rights record towards immigrants from the developing world Treasures of Southeast Asia doesn't pass muster.

The documentaries on display throughout the first floor, however, offer more insight. One focuses on three traditional artisans from the Philippines and shows why they are important to the cultures in which they operate. The video about Thailand, however, has more to do with tourism (women wandering around in bikinis and men playing golf) than it does with traditional crafts and cultures - the point of the exhibit.

The exhibit displays artifacts of interest to many - scholars, researchers and the general public alike - and is sure to pique the interest of museumgoers. Many of the questions the exhibition raises and leaves unanswered, can only be answered through further research, be it online, from a book or via direct contact with relevant experts.

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