National Palace Museum

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Treasures of the Forbidden City. The Best of the Best at the National Palace Museum Plus a "Once in a Lifetime Chance" Writing about Taiwan's National Palace Museum (NPM) is, perhaps, the "coals-to-Newcastle" equivalent of travel writing. This is to say, no visitor to Taipei needs to be informed of its existence or reminded of its incomparable collections. Indeed, the NPM is not just at the top of most tourists' must-do list - for some it is the main reason for visiting Taiwan.

Why add another thousand words to the millions already written about this "wonder of the museum world" then? The answer is both historical and practical in nature, as this year the NPM is celebrating two events. The first is the 80th anniversary of its founding in Beijing's Forbidden City on October 10, 1925; the second is the reopening at the end of the year of the museum's main building in northern Taipei after the NPM's first comprehensive renovation since it was re-established on November 12, 1965 following the meandering move of its vast trove of treasures to Taiwan.

Founding of the Museum

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To recap for those who might not know: the NPM was founded on the imperial collections started by the emperors of the Song dynasty (960~1279 AD) and continued through the Yuan , Ming , Cing , and Republican periods to the present day. Particularly significant were the contributions added from the imperial workshops during the Cing dynasty (1644~1911 AD).

These imperial collections became "ational treasures" following the revolution of 1911, but it was only after the last emperor, Henry Pu Yi , was forced from the Forbidden City in 1924 that a Palace Museum was established in the following year, and the general public could see for the first time the artifacts collected over a thousand-plus years.

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Seven years later the Japanese invaded China, and the trove was packed into 19,000 crates. These were shipped south to Shanghai, then to Nanjing, Guizhou, and Sichuan. In 1945 the collection returned to Nanjing, only for the civil war to prevent the museum reopening. Following the Communist victory, the cream of the collection, about 4,000 crates, came to Taiwan in 1949 with the retreating Kuomintang forces.

The NPM in Taiwan

Despite construction of a magnificent palatial-style museum facility on the southern slopes of Yangmingshan in the 1960s, the NPM has not been able to display more than a fraction of its collection of more than 650,000 artifacts covering "every time period from the Neolithic to the present."

In fact, only about one percent can be displayed at any time. Exhibits are rotated every three months, and it is commonly held that just to see the 4,000 world-class paintings in the NPM's possession would require continual visits over several decades.

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This is similarly true for the NPM's unmatched collection of Song dynasty works, one of the main reasons the museum is considered among the world's top four. Given that it would take almost a decade of regular visits to see the whole collection, the post-renovation relaunch at the end of the year is kicking off with a three-in-one exhibition of Song dynasty paintings and calligraphy, early printed books, and ru-ware ceramics from the innovative imperial kilns at Ruzhou in Henan Province. These latter are prized worldwide as much for their rarity (they were only produced for around two decades at the end of the 11th century) as for their high quality.

Occupying the special exhibition halls on the first, second, and third floors, the exhibitions will not only bring together the best of the NPM's own collection but also feature a number of key items borrowed from other museums. These include ru-ware from the David Percival Foundation of Chinese Art at the University of London and the Osaka Municipal Oriental Porcelain Museum; art and calligraphy from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City; and a range of items from the Henan Provincial Bureau of Cultural Relics.

Renovation

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The major consideration throughout the nearly ten years of research, planning, and execution of the new design was to expand the NPM's space, both for displays and for visitors. While the museum's essential nature, known and beloved by Taiwanese and Taiwan's friends around the world, will not change, new displays will try to place artifacts more in historical contexts to bring them alive. Visitor routes will be made clearer and more user-friendly, Japanese-language tour guides will supplement the efforts of their Chinese- and English-language colleagues, and a variety of new printed materials will be published.

The Museum on the Web

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Furthermore, creation of a "virtual NPM" on the Internet, which was begun in 1990, will continue apace. While this will never come close to replacing the first-hand experience of a visit to the museum, the web pages provide an invaluable resource. They can also be used before, after, or even during a visit (there are computer terminals set up throughout the NPM) to plan one's route or garner extra information.

Two good web pages to start with are one introducing the curators' choice of ten great national treasures and another showing choices made by visitors (http://www.npm.gov.tw/en/e030601.htm). The former includes items spanning different eras, from a 3,000-year-old bronze vessel inscribed with early examples of Chinese writing through three artifacts appearing in the Song dynasty exhibit to a 17th-century Tibetan mandala, and spans artistic fields from bronzeware and ceramics to painting, calligraphy, and early printed sutras. The visitors' choices, needless to say, include the perennially popular Jadeite Cabbage with Insects.

Guided Tours

Even better than researching on the Internet, picking up the leaflets available free in every display room, or listening to the multilingual audio guide is to taking a docent tour. English tours are offered daily free of charge at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. The real beauty of these tours is not so much in the information offered by the docents, who all take a four-month intensive course before they start, but in the enthusiasm with which they discuss the exhibits. Without any official rote-learned text, but armed with the fruits of their own research for each exhibition, they bring the artifacts alive by discussing those aspects they themselves find most interesting.

The NPM is not closed during the ongoing renovation and still has a good selection of important pieces and temporary exhibitions in part of the main building and in the southwest annex. In recognition of the reduced range of artifacts on display, however, the museum is offering a second visit free until the end of the year, so visitors during this final period of restoration should hang on to their first-visit tickets.

Souvenirs and More

Similarly, the NPM gift shops are still open and are still among the best places in Taiwan to find souvenirs and presents. Last year, the museum organized a competition for design companies to dream up new NPM-related products to be sold in the shops. Such imaginative creations as trays that make ice-cubes in the shape of famous NPM artifacts, a clock imitating the traditional incense-burning method of telling the time, and lollipops in the shape but not the flavor of ancient jades will go on sale in time for the reopening.

Finally, for those long-term residents or repeat visitors who, having spent much of the last, say, forty years keeping abreast of the NPM's exhibitions and feel they have seen everything on offer from the original 650,000-artifact trove, a new southern branch museum will open in Taibao City in Chiayi County in 2007. This will expand the museum's horizon from Chinese artifacts to those of Asia in general and, hopefully, will keep NPM aficionados busy for another forty years.

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Info

Hours: Monday ~ Sunday (all year round); 9 a.m. ~ 5 p.m.

Tickets: NT$100/NT$80/NT$50

Address: No. 221, Zhishan (Jhihshan) Rd., Sec. 2, Taipei City

Website: www.npm.gov.tw

Transportation: Take the MRT to Shilin (Shihlin) Station , transfer to bus no. 255, 304, 30 red, or minibus 18 or 19