Su Hung-dah (蘇宏達), a political science professor at National Taiwan University (NTU), in November 2018 posted a video on Facebook in which he criticized policies proposed by Chen Chi-nan (陳其南) when Chen was National Palace Museum director.
Su called Chen’s proposals a “cultural revolution” that would “eradicate” the museum.
The NTU Students’ Association criticized the video, saying: “This action is not just a case of irrational discussion. By broadcasting the video, Su supplied the public with simplistic, one-sided information that caused people to misunderstand the situation.”
This criticism hits the mark.
In recent years, the trend of people with ulterior motives recklessly distorting government officials’ statements and policies has reached disastrous proportions.
Although such distortion has become commonplace, Su is not just an average person — he is Jean Monnet Chair professor at the university, European Union Centre in Taiwan director-general and president of the European Community Studies Association Taiwan — so this matter must be taken seriously from an educational point of view.
Su raised three specific points in the video: that artifacts can easily be damaged when moved, that Chen planned to rename the museum the Museum of East Asia and that the Democratic Progressive Party wants to “desinicize” everything.
To be fair, museums must at times move artifacts because of repair work or redecorating, or to lend to other institutions. Careful assessment is needed in such cases and artifacts must only be transported by professionals, but saying that it is impermissible to move any of the National Palace Museum’s artifacts because they are too precious is going too far.
As to Su’s other points, given how long the name “National Palace Museum” has been in use, it is time to review its legitimacy. It is also worth discussing whether the artifacts should continue to be exhibited in a context centered on Chinese culture.
According to Chen, a transition at the museum means that visitors can simultaneously appreciate Chinese culture as they encounter Taiwan’s best historical artifacts, art and handicrafts. They can also, through exhibitions at the reorganized museum and its branches, get to know the diverse East Asian civilization that Taiwanese society holds in high regard.
Opinions may vary as to whether this is the best strategy for “recontextualizing” the museum’s artifacts, but it was unfair for Su to portray Chen’s ideas as “eradicating” the museum.
The museum’s artifacts are as precious as those of France’s Louvre Museum, but they have a very different history and are exhibited in a different context.
When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government fled to Taiwan, it transferred a large quantity of precious artifacts that had belonged in the Qing Dynasty’s imperial palace — the Forbidden City — in Beijing. Having moved these treasures to Taipei, the KMT government built a palatial building to house them.
If the principle that cultural property should be returned to its country of origin is upheld, then just as treasures from the Louvre Palace are exhibited in the Louvre Museum, the National Palace Museum’s artifacts should be exhibited in their original home: the Forbidden City.
This question would come to the fore if the Chinese government wanted to repatriate the National Palace Museum’s artifacts, but, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards Taiwan as a part of China, it does not mind that the “Taiwan area” has provided an alternative in which to house the “motherland’s” artifacts.
The CCP thinks this shows that Taiwan stands united with China in proclaiming Chinese culture and proves the party’s oft-stated point that “blood is thicker than water.” People in Taiwan should be on their guard when Chinese authorities use this kind of political metaphor.
Nations around the world have adopted various ways of exhibiting artifacts from other places. They do not return all such artifacts to their places of origin.
One way of exhibiting such artifacts is to present them as works of art so that the overall museumgoing experience is one of purely aesthetic appreciation.
A second way is to place them in the broader historical and cultural context, providing visitors a global view of history. The British Museum is a good example of this approach.
A third way is to attach critical commentary covering ethical questions regarding how they were obtained.
How should the National Palace Museum exhibit its artifacts? This question merits deep consideration and a university is a suitable context for a rational student discussion on the topic.
However, Su’s video did not encourage this kind of analysis; instead, he framed the conversation with leaps of logic — such as the idea that changing the way in which the artifacts are exhibited amounts to a “cultural revolution.”
Students can draw their own conclusions about such pronouncements from an NTU professor.
Tsai Chen-gia and Chen Chia-li are National Taiwan University alumni who teach at national universities.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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