When the communists won control of China in 1949, their Nationalist opponents retreated to Taiwan, taking with them nearly 4,000 crates containing the créme de la créme of the country's imperial art treasures.
Fearing a communist invasion, the Nationalists kept most of the artifacts in caves and tunnels first in central Taiwan and then in Taipei, buried in a hill situated behind what is today the National Palace Museum. Over time, the majority of the 650,000-piece collection was moved to the museum's three basement floors, but because of space constraints the facility was only able to display 4,000 items at one time. That was until the completion of a three-year, $21 million renovation project in February. Today, the National Palace Museum luxuriates in 65,000 sq. ft. (6,000 sq m) of additional space. It also features earthquake retrofitting and a larger lobby with a striking glass roof.
The changes, however, are more than cosmetic. They are part of a major reorientation of the museum's mission away from its previous role as a repository of ancient Chinese culture, and toward a controversial future as the focal point for Taiwan's contemporary cultural ambitions. Its most recent special exhibition a series of film installations curated by Gertjan Zuilhof of International Film Festival Rotterdam featured experimental works from around the globe. The Palace, an installation by celebrated Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, surrounded visitors with glass cases in a dark room. Shadows moved and whispers echoed in the artist's representation of the supernatural and unknown. In the satirical Beijing Holiday, Austrian artist Edgar Honetschläger took a dummy of Soong Mei-ling, wife of Nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek, on a scooter ride around Beijing; this to show her what communist China looked like nearly 60 years after she fled to Taiwan. The event represented a massive departure from the traditional Chinese art the museum exclusively promoted in the past.
"During earlier times, the National Palace Museum was more of a political symbol than an art museum," says director Lin Mun-lee, who was brought over from the Taipei Fine Arts Museum to kick-start a program of modernization. As a storehouse of what mainland China still regards as plundered loot, the facility potently represents the rift between Beijing and Taipei. "But," Lin maintains, "the museum can't always live in the past." To emphasize her point, a statue of communist nemesis Chiang, which once stood prominently at the museum's entrance, has been moved to a side building. At the start of the year, Taiwan's Cabinet, the Exec-utive Yuan, even passed an amendment to the museum's charter, changing the description of the institution from a museum of "Chinese" art to a museum of "domestic and foreign" art (the amendment awaits ratification by the island's legislature).
Lin defends these changes as an attempt to establish "a Taiwanese identity" independent of Taiwan's historic connections with China. Chinese culture, she argues, is merely "part of Taiwan's multiculturalism," which features several non-Chinese indigenous ethnic groups and a strong Japanese influence that dates back to the island's 50 years as a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945.
But these are highly inflammatory statements in Beijing's eyes, "Regulations can be changed, but history cannot," says Liang Jinsheng, a researcher with the Palace Museum in Beijing. According to Yang Yi, a spokesman for China's State Council, changes to the Taipei museum's charter are merely designed to "promote Taiwan-independence education."
None of the squabbling, however, detracts from the magnificence of the museum's collection, whichever side of the Taiwan Strait you believe it belongs to. And despite the new focus on trendy installations, the grand old treasures are still the museum's ace. There are 3,600-year-old remnants of Shang dynasty war chariots, 1,000-year-old Song dynasty porcelains, ceramics from the Neolithic period, 3,000-year-old bronze vessels and musical instruments from the Tang dynasty (618-907), among thousands of other treasures in 17 permanent exhibitions. Visitors this fall will also have a chance to catch a rare display of Islamic jade items (on display until Dec. 20).
It is unfortunate that few mainland Chinese will see these splendid artifacts (only those who live abroad or travel via another country are permitted to visit Taiwan). But this heritage is too important not to share. Hopefully, one day, both sides will be able to delight in their common heritage as much as they spar over their differences.
with reporting by Jodi Xu/Beijing
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