When the National Museum of Taiwan History (NMTH) was formally opened in Tainan City, southern Taiwan on October 29, 2011, one of the guests of honor was a 61-year-old Dutchman, Paul J. J. Overmaat.
Overmaat is not a professional scholar of Taiwan’s history, but rather a businessman who spends up to eight months each year outside Taiwan. By his own admission, his grasp of Mandarin Chinese is very poor, and he cannot speak a word of Taiwanese. Yet he has won the respect and friendship of several eminent academics thanks to his passion for collecting Western maps, illustrations and books that relate to Taiwan.
“He has helped the Taiwanese to collect a vast number of precious non-Chinese books and maps about their own history. As illustrative materials, these objects are indeed of priceless value to almost all monographs and books written about Taiwan’s history,” says J. Leonard Blussé, author of several books about East Asia and a professor emeritus of the Institute of History at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
“Every time I am in Taiwan I try to visit him in order to exchange views on his hobby,” Blussé says. “Overmaat has always kept in mind that his collection should serve the public interest, but he will certainly not pay any price for the objects that are offered for sale, as second hand book- and map-sellers have found out,” Blussé says of Overmaat’s business acumen.
Of the 50,000-plus artifacts in the NMTH’s collection, 339 came from Overmaat. Among the items from the Dutchman are 155 maps and 88 books, with most of the remainder being paintings, photographs and other images.
According to NMTH assistant curator Shih Wen-cheng (石文誠), the value of Overmaat’s collection stems from its focus “on Western historical objects that were written, painted or produced during the 16th to early 20th centuries. These historical resources show different perspectives compared with traditional Chinese historical resources. They help us understand Taiwan’s history and the lifestyles of Taiwanese people in the early days. We have incorporated these Western resources into our exhibitions and publications to help the public better understand Taiwan’s history.”
A stroke of good fortune first sent Overmaat to Asia, and work brought him to Taiwan...
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