Cultural policy China

Beijing and Taipei aim to overcome historic divide

The director of the National Palace Museum in Taipei is borrowing from mainland China—lending to US and UK is trickier

Ming Dynasty Buddhas at the National Palace Museum, Taipei

TAIPEI. When a 40-strong delegation headed by Cai Wu, China’s minister for culture, visited Taiwan in September, it was the latest sign that cultural relations across the straits that separate the island from the communist mainland are thawing. Foremost on the Chinese officials’ itinerary was a tour of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, home to a large collection of artefacts that came from the Forbidden City in Beijing. Having survived wars and revolution, they were evacuated to Taipei in 1949.

“It was his first visit to set up exchange relationships with Taiwan,” said Chou Kung-shin, the director of Taipei’s National Palace Museum since 2008. An example of just such an exchange was “Dynastic Renaissance”, an exhibition of art of the Southern Song Dynasty, which closed at the National Palace Museum in December.

“We borrowed items from six museums in Zhejiang [Province], three museums in Fujian, the Shanghai Museum and Liaoning museum and two Japanese museums, so it is quite a big international exhibition,” said Chou.

Because Taiwan has an anti-seizure law, which prevents claims being made on visiting collections, as does the UK, she hopes to organise a temporary loan exhibition that will also travel to London. Because of the recession, plans for the show in a museum that she declined to name have been delayed, Chou said, adding that arranging such an exhibition “needs a lot of energy and financial support”. The museum is currently hosting an exhibition of Greek artefacts, on loan from the British Museum. “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece” runs until 7 February.

Chou also said that the Palace Museum is in discussions with museums in the US about another loan exhibition, which will most likely travel there “within two years”. She declined to say which museums in the US, however. “Japan is also in the process of setting up [an anti-seizure] law, so maybe we will have an exhibition there earlier than the US one,” she said.

Mountain store

Of the museum’s own collection, Chou said that the majority of work not on display is stored in an administrative building and two tunnels under a nearby mountain. “We have a lot of ceramics stored there,” she said. There are around 700,000 objects in the collection in total. After a period of inactivity, “the collection is growing fast,” she said. “Buying had caused a lot of accusations [about corruption], so this caused problems in the running of the museum. [The government] was scared but I asked for an acquisitions budget, as in 2008 and 2009 we were in a recession, so this was a good time to buy things; at a good price and of good quality.”

The museum is acquiring the 2,000-strong Tsai family collection, which ranges from 19th- and 20th-century paintings and calligraphy to antiquities. “They were bankrupted and this work was confiscated by a bank,” Chou said, adding that there are still some negotiations underway on the price. She strongly supports mainland China’s active collecting of Chinese works of art as they appear on the international market.

Chou dismisses stories that part of the Forbidden Palace’s collection was diverted to Hong Kong or another port during the civil war, and so was lost in 1949. “[That is] impossible,” she said. “I worked [in the 1970s] with the senior curators from that time. They told us, the young newcomers, all the stories about how hard they worked to protect the collection, some even sacrificed their lives. No single piece was lost.” She recounted how during the 1930s and 40s the collection was evacuated from Beijing first to Shanghai, then Nanjing, then Chongqing, then Anshun, then Ermei, then after the second world war ended, it went back to Nanjing. “Then they wanted to ship it back to the north, but the communists took the region, and so about one third [of the collection] was shipped to Taiwan.”

According to Chou, the collection from the Forbidden Palace filled 19,000 thousand crates and only “4,000 crates were shipped. These went to Shanghai, and then the masterpieces were chosen to go to Taiwan. The rest were left, some in Nanjing. Some are still in Nanjing, they don’t want to give them back to Beijing. They are fighting, the Nanjing Museum and the Palace Museum [in Beijing]. So the collection is now in three parts, in Beijing, Nanjing, and Taiwan.”

Expansion plans

Chou’s biggest project is opening a branch in southern Taiwan. An initial plan was abandoned before she arrived owing to issues arising from the selection of the architects. A revised plan is now with the Taiwan legislature for approval. The National Palace Museum has applied for a budget of $250m for its construction and running costs. It has a projected annual attendance of between 600,000 to 900,000 visitors. Planned exhibitions include ones of Islamic jade, textiles, porcelain, and digital art. “Once approved, there will be a competition for the architectural design,” Chou said. “The Guomindang [the ruling nationalist party] support the project. This is not the problem. The issue is how well we can do the job. It’s a huge project.”

Chou became museum director having risen through the ranks. “I was quite lucky, I had 27 years experience at the museum,” she said. “I started as a tour guide, then became secretary to two directors, then spent 16 years as head of education and public relations.” She then set up a museum study course during which time she helped organise exhibitions shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Grand Palais in Paris.

Chou’s innovations as director include creating programmes aimed at young visitors and family groups, and others targeted at Taiwan’s business professionals. “We want them to improve their cultural knowledge, so we have created a creative camp with seminars for them. When I came back [to the museum] I asked for two things: one of them was to give me a site where there is currently a parking lot and apartments, which will become the creativity centre.” And the second thing? “I asked for a Mass Rapid Transit station. And now the Taipei government plans to build it within ten years.”

When Chou arrived visitor numbers were just over two million. In 2009 the National Palace Museum attracted 2.5 million visitors, and last year that number was projected to rise further still to three million. Chou is keen that her staff learn how to politely tell the loud visitors among them to be quieter. “[Staff] do this gesture,” she said putting a finger to the lips, “and smile”.

Chou Kung-shin, the director of Taipei's National Palace Museum
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