Wed, Mar 30, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Diamond in the rough

Despite its unfinished surroundings, the much-maligned National Palace Museum Southern Branch is a treat for art, culture and history lovers

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

The two main structures of the National Palace Museum Southern Branch intersect to create a courtyard in between.

Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei Times

It’s not a pretty sight when you first exit the parking lot and walk toward the main structure at the recently opened National Palace Museum Southern Branch in Chiayi County.

What is supposed to be a lush, 50-hectare park surrounding the museum and its outdoor exhibit space remains largely barren and covered with straw, and when it rains, soil erosion creates muddy pools along the walkways.

There’s no getting around it — all visitors have to walk, bike or take a shuttle through a substantial stretch of this bleak landscape to reach the bridge that leads to the museum.

Granted, this part of the site — managed by a private company under a build-operate-transfer contract — is still under construction. Nonetheless, it creates a poor first impression for a state-of-the-art museum, well-designed and organized with thoughtful and impressive exhibits.

It has been a long time coming for the Southern Branch, which was first proposed in 2001 and scheduled to be completed by 2008. After various delays, it finally opened its doors on Dec. 28 last year.


Things start looking much better as the main building designed by architect Kris Yao (姚仁喜) comes into view. Monochrome and abstract, it bears no resemblance to its traditional Chinese-style northern counterpart — perhaps alluding to their different natures: the main branch is focused on Chinese artifacts, while the southern branch covers all of Asia.

“We take a cultural exchange approach in curating our exhibits for the southern branch,” says Feng Ming-chu (馮明珠), the museum’s director.

The architecture is a bit of an optical illusion — from the parking lot, it appears that the entire building is a charcoal-black, sloped monolith covered with round discs — but as the path brings the visitor closer to the entrance, the other side appears as a glass facade. Further inspection reveals that the two sides are actually separate, curved structures that intersect at both ends.

Despite its ultramodern look, the building’s concept is based on traditional Chinese calligraphy techniques. The charcoal black side represents nongmo (濃墨, thick ink), while the glass side is feibai (飛白, half-dry strokes), and the outdoor path in between the structures is xuanran (渲染, smearing).

Since the artifacts cannot be exposed to direct sunlight, they are housed in the black side, while the glass side contains the administrative offices, library and a spacious lobby.

The interior details are also symbolic: dragon, elephant and horse motifs represent the intersection of Chinese, Indian and Persian cultures. Cameras are not allowed in the exhibition space, and must be put in lockers — which are decorated with Islamic jade motifs that are part of the collection.


A staircase leads up to the exhibition halls, containing 10 themed exhibitions — including Buddhist Art, tea culture, textiles, South Asian costumes and porcelains from ancient Japan, China and Korea. It takes more than an hour to quickly browse through everything.

The first room contains an exhibition on the history and culture of Chiayi, told through a combination of text, images, media and artifacts, including a decorated rare right-spiraling conch, which was brought here by Qing Dynasty general Fukanggan (福康安) to ensure safe passage across the Taiwan Strait on his way to pacify the Lin Shuang-wen rebellion (林爽文事件).

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