Friday, July 13, 2012

Taiwan's newest museums (Taiwan Business Topics)

Since the 1990s, new museums in Taiwan have, to use a Chinese idiom, been springing up “like bamboo shoots after rain.”

Undoubtedly the most important one to have opened in the past two years is the National Museum of Taiwan History. The opening of this 20-hectare complex last October was a major event – as it should be, because it filled a glaring gap. Taiwan has long had museums dedicated to the arts and sciences, and also to its ethnic minorities; countries of comparable size and wealth have had history museums for decades, if not longer. But Taiwan’s peculiar history has meant that, until quite recently, building a consensus about the past – let alone the island’s future direction – was extremely difficult. 

The project was conceived during Lee Teng-hui’s presidency and nurtured by the Chen Shui-bian administration, but the finishing touches were not made until well after the Kuomintang returned to power in 2008. As a result, many who toured the museum just after it opened were curious to see if it presented a “green-tinted” or “blue-tinged” version of Taiwan’s past.

Anyone looking for a political subtext inside the NMTH will be disappointed, however. The museum has not attracted criticism of the kind leveled at Taipei’s 2-28 Memorial Museum, and it manages to be both thorough and engrossing. The standard of English throughout the NMTH is very high, even if the text is often too small for comfortable reading.

Rather than present history in a traditional text-heavy format, the second floor’s permanent exhibition, “Our Land, Our People – The Story of Taiwan,” is filled with images and models. It goes all the way back to the days of Taiwan's earliest known human inhabitant, “Zuozhen Man,” 30,000-year-old fragments of whom were found in a riverbed about 20 kilometers inland of the museum.

Of the several tableaux vivants on the second floor, two in particular stand out. One is a recreation of Lukang’s waterfront as it would have looked in the 18th century, when the central Taiwan town was one of Taiwan's busiest harbors. The diorama features several lifelike waxworks figures, among them stowaways (who cower in the hold of a single-mast junk, hoping to evade the imperial ban on migrating to Taiwan), the vessel’s captain, stevedores, and an official wearing a traditional mandarin’s gown.

Another depicts a traditional religious parade. Anyone curious about the roles played by Bajiajiang (fierce-looking young men with painted faces who prance menacingly in front of the palanquin bearing the effigy of a god) and others during such events will appreciate the clear and concise information – even if they have to kneel on the floor to read some of the panels.

According to a museum spokeswoman, more than 200 waxwork figures (actually fiberglass) were crafted for the museum, and the physique and face of each one was modeled on an actual living person – including, in one case, NMTH Director Lu Li-cheng.

Elsewhere on the second floor, displays look at the role of irrigation, camphor, and sugar in Taiwan’s development. Financiers will be interested to read that in the mid-1600s, four currencies – Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese – were in daily use in those parts of Taiwan controlled by the Dutch East India Company. Exchange rates were, by modern standards, very stable...

To read the rest of this article - which also covers National Taiwan Museum's Land Bank Annex, the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Artifacts Museum, Lanyang Museum (the photo above shows part of an exhibit about Atayal aborigines) and Xiaolin Pingpu Culture Museum - go here. I have three lengthy pieces in this year's Taiwan Business Topics' Travel & Culture Special, and will post the other two in the next few days.

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