National Museum of Natural Science

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Investigating the Heart of Taiwan. Spend a Day (or Ten) at the National Museum of Natural Science

More than 25 years ago Taiwan's central government conceived of a natural-science museum. The dream has become reality brick by brick, building by building.

Located in Taiwan's third-largest city, Taichung, the Natural Museum of Natural Science (NMNS) attracts more than three million paying visitors per year, while the free park, various ecological gardens, and a "DNA climbing frame" adjacent to the museum are thronged with local residents whenever the sun comes out.

A World of Science

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Visitors are presented with a dazzling array of choices that include the Science Center, Life Science Hall, Chinese Science Hall, Global Environment Hall (which examines life on earth from the microscopic to macroscopic), Astronomy and Weather Exhibit Area, Fantastic World of Matter Area (the theory and application but, primarily, the fun of physics), Integrated Circuits Area (sponsored, not surprisingly, by one of Taiwan's world-leading computer-tech companies), Exploring Science Area (holography, sensory illusions, and chaos), Space Theater (a 3D venue), Tropical Rainforest Greenhouse, and Outdoor Exhibit area (Taiwan vegetation), as well as a variety of special exhibitions.

One of the museum's highlights is the ongoing reconstruction of a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty jade suit for dead emperors, undertaken by a lab-coated scientist in a plexiglas cage who communicates back and forth with visitors through microphones and speakers.

Visitors with specialist interests should head off to the relevant sections; those with children might best head to the dinosaur exhibit, which consciously emphasizes "cientists' imaginative skills" and has dino replicas that move and roar on cue.

For the average foreign tourist who does not have the spare week or two it would take to visit all the museum's sections, however, it is probably best to head first to the Chinese Science Hall and the designated sections introducing Chinese Medicine, Chinese Spiritual Life, Chinese Agriculture, Ancient Chinese, and Taiwanese Aborigines.

These sections really set the museum aside from any science center visitors may have seen before. Due to Western advances in science during China's less scientifically miraculous late-imperial period, the many breathtaking achievements of her earlier scientists are often overlooked. (A good preparatory read for those new to the subject is Joseph Needham's 25-volume Science and Civilisation in China or, for a more concise read, Robert Temple's distillation in The Genius of China.)

Chinese Inventions

The Chinese themselves speak of having "four major inventions" (papermaking, the compass, gunpowder, and printing), but this is excessively modest as both imperial workshops and private individuals made significant contributions to the development of just about every sphere of human endeavor.

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The Chinese Science Hall's first exhibit is a life-size (12m high) working model of Su Song's 11th-century water-powered clock, which revolutionized astronomical observation in addition to time-keeping. Other technological highlights here include two kinds of bridges revolutionary in their day, numerous astrological devices (the ancient Chinese believed - and today many still do - that what occurred in the heavens was of direct connection to events on earth), and a model of Jhang Heng's "earthquake detector," a 2nd-century seismograph that dropped balls into the mouths of bronze toads to indicate the direction from the capital city in which a tremor had occurred and in which relief should be sent.

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The next room houses the Chinese Medicine display, ranging from herbs and alchemic concoctions to acupuncture and moxibustion. It begins with a discussion of yin and yang and the "five elements" (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth), the cosmic forces that Chinese believe underlie all earthly phenomena, manifested perhaps most clearly in the human body and its malfunctions.

Agriculture

As a predominantly rural nation, it is no surprise that China produced many inventions and innovations in the field of agriculture. Its use of the collar harness for horses, for example, dates from the 3rd century BC and, therefore, predates its adoption in the West by around 1,000 years. Its iron plow dates from the 6th century BC (2,200 years earlier than in the West) and use of a multi-seed drill from the 2nd century BC (1,800 years earlier).

The Chinese Agriculture section is focused on three model landscapes (small in scale but large in area), depicting the different farming lifestyles of ancient peoples in north, central, and south China. Main crops in the drier north of China included wheat and sorghum; some farmers still lived in cave dwellings, others in what would become classic farmhouse dwellings. Water was more plentiful in central China and, in addition to crops and livestock, people raised mulberry trees to feed silkworms to make silk. Wet-rice was the staple of the hot, humid south, though other crops such as taro were also widely grown.

Mechanical inventions related to farm work are displayed. These include waterwheels for grinding grain and pumps used for irrigation. The Ancient Chinese exhibit topics include Homo erectus pekinensis, better known as Peking Man. Thought to be a distant ancestor of Homo sapiens, fossil bones of this particular group dating from 500,000 to 200,000 years ago were discovered 70km from Beijing in the 1920s and 30s.

Other displays discuss various prehistoric sites and their evidence of how Han civilization emerged from the disparate Neolithic peoples. Key sites have been excavated around the Yellow River showing a shift in dependence from hunting and gathering toward domesticated animal and crop farming. A final leap in time brings visitors to the bronze and terrocotta figures found in the late 3rd-century BC tomb of the First Emperor, who unified the "warring states" to lay the seeds of what would become today's China.

Religion

Two final exhibits have particular bearing on life in Taiwan today. The first, Chinese Spiritual Life, again starts with yin and yang to explain how the religious beliefs seen throughout contemporary Taiwan developed from the worship of nature and ancestral spirits. Key displays outline the main tenets of Taiwan's "three religions" (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism), key religious festivals staged around the country, and related practices such as taijicyuan and fongshuei.

Aborigines

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The Taiwanese Aborigines exhibit introduces visitors to the Austronesian language family, whose members inhabit lands from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east, New Zealand in the south to Taiwan in the north. The main extant Taiwanese groups (from the largest, the Amis, with around 160,000 members, to the smallest, the Thao, which is down to its last few hundred representatives, are described one after another - their material cultures, spiritual beliefs, and social practices.

While Taiwan might have better museums dedicated solely to its indigenous peoples, there is none better than the NMNS when it comes to introducing the natural and human science of Taiwan and China - indeed, to the entire body of humankind's knowledge and learning around the globe in the natural sciences.

Finishing this introduction is as hard as finishing a visit to the NMNS; harder perhaps, since there is no gentle reminder to move toward the exit when the museum is about to close.

Whatever preconceived ideas visitors might have about which exhibits they'd most like to see, they should be warned, a day's visit could easily turn into ten.

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Practical Info

The museum is open 9 a.m. ~ 5 p.m., Tuesday ~ Sunday except major holidays.

Address: No. 1, Guancian Rd., Taichung City

tel: (04) 2322-6940

website: www.nmns.edu.tw

Tickets:
NT$20 (students NT$10)for the Tropical Rainforest Greenhouse and Science Center.
NT$70 (students NT$30)for the 3D Theater.
NT$100 (students NT$50)for the Space Theater and Exhibit Areas.

Free English-language audio guides are available from the information desk.

Getting There

By Train:
Yingge can be reached by train from Taipei in about thirty minutes. From the station it's a ten-minute walk or a short taxi ride.
By Car:
Yingge lies beside National Freeway 3, a thirty-minute drive from downtown Taipei. Take the Sanying Interchange . After crossing the Sanying Bridge, you will soon see the museum to the left.