Friday, July 22, 2016

Chimei Museum's Violins and Tools of Violence (Taiwan Business Topics)

If an exhibition center wants to be taken seriously – yet displays a stuffed polar bear across the corridor from medieval Indian weaponry, while oil paintings by the likes of Anthony van Dyck share the upper floor with jukeboxes – it had better state its mission clearly. Chimei Museum, which reopened in a purpose-built landmark building at the start of 2015, does all of these things.

Since the early 1990s, bentuhua (“localization”) has been a powerful force in Taiwan’s cultural sphere. The National Museum of Taiwan History, 14 kilometers from Chimei Museum in another part of Tainan, is the finest expression of this trend. But despite being founded by a man who served as a senior presidential advisor to Chen Shui-bian, Chimei Museum tacks in an utterly different direction.

Shi Wen-long, the tycoon behind the museum, was born in 1928. He founded what is now the Chi Mei Group in 1960. In addition to manufacturing acrylics, resins, and consumer electronics, the group operates three hospitals.

Shi has been passionate about museums since his youth. He was fortunate enough to attend an elementary school near one, and recalls in the preface to the book Highlights of the Chimei Collection: “For a child, free admission to a museum full of wonderful treasures was so fascinating that I spent most of my time after school there. This museum not only gave me vivid childhood memories, but also inspired me to later build a museum for the public. The founding essence of the museum has always been ‘to promote music comprehensible to the common ears, and to collect paintings beautiful to the common eyes.’”

The young Shi also fell in love with the sound of the violin. Because his family was unable to afford an instrument, he fashioned his own, taught himself to play, and eventually became a talented musician.

“Chimei Museum aims through its collection to demonstrate art history and the lineage of violin luthiers. Our current acquisition policy focuses on completing the mapping of these historical puzzles,” says Patricia Liao, the museum’s deputy director. “Mr. Shi’s dream is to start a cultural renaissance in Tainan. He has selected artworks which Taiwan residents would otherwise have to spend an enormous amount of time and money to view in person. This is why his collection is mostly Western works of art. Our job is to help him choose works that enhance the museum’s educational functions.”

The museum holds approximately 12,000 items. By comparison, Taipei’s National Palace Museum (NPM) has close to 700,000. Despite having a brand-new, specially designed building, Chimei Museum shares one problem with the NPM: Not enough space to put everything it owns on display...

The complete article appears in the July 2016 issue of Taiwan Business Topics, and is online here.