Museums like Taipei's National Palace Museum or France's Louvre are not really concerned with aesthetics. Unlike, say, the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim, these museums exist because they are keepers of a nation's patrimony. These institutions give form to ideology.
Ideology is a messy thing, and never messier than in a contested border region, like Taiwan. Visitors go to the Louvre to "see" France, to experience the nation's cultural heritage. What do visitors experience when they visit the National Palace Museum, a museum "about" China, but located in Taiwan?
Taiwanese identity has always been tricky. Handed off from empire to empire, settled by successive waves of immigrants, the island has always been liminal, not quite this but also not quite that. Has Taiwan ever been a part of China? Can history help us decide? Or is it completely in our hands?
In 2001, the National Palace Museum embarked on a series of major renovations, ostensibly to update the facilities and protect its priceless collections. It needed a facelift and the renovations proved an opportune moment to revisit the museum's mission.
I'd read about the National Palace Museum's multi-million dollar renovations in Art in America, the New York Times, and a number of other high-toned publications. Now, I wanted to see for myself how the museum's 21st-century incarnation diverges from the museum of my childhood.
The old museum was a dark, dreary place, perpetually musty. Objects were often unlabelled. Explanations were pedantic and difficult to understand. Visitors often left feeling dazed, awed into submission by 5,000 years of Chinese civilization.
The new museum attempts to break away from that. Clean and bright, with brand-new interactive displays and plenty of helpful interpretive materials, the museum bears little resemblance to its former self.
The National Palace Museum's physical transformation is stunning. Everything, from the main atrium to the galleries, received some kind of treatment. By opening up the building's main atrium and creating a grand entrance hall, the architects gave the museum a spatial anchor. Once closed and cramped, the atrium is now a soaring space four stories high, capped by skylights. In the museum's previous iteration, visitors had to snake their way through the building using a dark, cramped warren of stairwells and passages. The architects replaced those unappealing (and sometimes treacherously crowded) staircases with a single set of centralized stairs. Glass skylights funnel sunlight into the basement, directing light onto the ticket counters and into the main gift shop.
The galleries radiate outward from the atrium's central core. Themed galleries house the museum's famous collections of jade, ceramics, and bronze, and the museum has dramatically increased the amount of gallery space available for temporary installations.
Visits to the museum used to remind me of visits to a collector's basement -- it was largely an encounter with a hodgepodge of objects, organized by type. I understood, in an abstract way, that the objects before me were "priceless," but I couldn't connect with them on a meaningful level. The museum simply gave me no tools to interpret the objects.
This museum loves technology, and uses it well. In gallery after gallery, I watched my fellow visitors congregate, eagerly watching the videos, often computer animations, that are successful because they are short, concise, visually appealing, and often highly idiosyncratic. In most cases, the videos themselves are quite artistic, helping to humanize the objects and connecting the works to a broader world.
Take, for example, the National Palace Museum's decision to pair a printed reproduction of the Ch'ing Ming Shang He Tu ("Up the River during the Ch'ing Ming Festival"), a Song dynasty scroll painting, with a set of animated vignettes. The animators divided the painting into four sections, and transformed it into four animated shorts. Chinese handscrolls are often described as cinematic, but the animations give life to that common interpretation by showing, not telling. The original scroll is too fragile to display under harsh lights for long periods, so the curators mounted a reproduction of the painting on a piece of masonite. Viewers are invited to touch the painting, and indeed, most do. I watched several sets of museum visitors follow along with their fingers, adding a tactile dimension to the experience.
The animations themselves are beautifully rendered, done in a style that was neither a pastiche nor a direct transcription. The painting illustrates a boat's journey up a river during the annual Ch'ing Ming festival. The boat enters an idealized city, and we are treated to various festive scenes of city life. There are traders, bazaars, even a set of ornery camels. The animations bring these fabulous scenes to life in unexpected ways. Visitors watched with glee as the boatman wipes sweat from his brow, and squealed in delight when the traders' camel nips at a passing figure. The animated vignettes rendered the scroll painting accessible. One did not need to be a scholar -- one did not need to be erudite -- to enjoy the painting.
Exhibition designers should take note of the museum's approach to lighting. Each permanent gallery has a theme -- bronzes, ceramics, calligraphy -- and each gallery has its own aesthetic. In some galleries, as in the calligraphy gallery, the lighting must be beautiful, but it also has to satisfy the demands of conservation. In other galleries, the designers were free to experiment. For the jade galleries, the designers lined the cases with dark velvet, and then directed pinpoint spotlights onto each piece of jade. The result is dramatic and shockingly sensual, as the light brings out the jade's textures and colors to startling effect. Though vision is never truly an adequate substitute for touch, the combination of tactile velvet and intense, almost supernatural, lighting gives us a fair approximation. The cases are as rich, and deep, as a Dutch Old Master.
All this glitz has a point. Before this renovation, the National Palace Museum was rapidly losing relevance. The museum may boast a peerless collection of Song paintings, but these things mean little to the new generation, who know China only as an abstraction. The curators must make their museum's collection attractive -- and relevant. They must interest the next generation in history.
If the old Palace Museum had a tomb-like atmosphere, the new Palace Museum feels almost carnival-esque. Part of this change in mood, from tense and somber to bright and vivacious, comes from Taiwan's own political transformation, from single-party rule to democracy. The most popular exhibitions -- like the museum's famous jade collection -- now resemble mosh pits, with visitors piled 3 or 4 deep around glass cases, jostling for a view of the famous jade cabbage. What once delighted emperors now delights the masses.
On our recent visit, we observed several signs indicating a new "Pan Asian" approach within the museum. A large, temporary exhibit highlighted decorative art from Southeast Asia and India. The interpretive text emphasized the cultural contiguities -- and the trade routes -- that linked these regions. The ceramics gallery featured a temporary exhibit that traced China's influence on Eastern and Near Eastern ceramics. The curators placed true Ming "blue and white" porcelain beside Vietnamese stoneware done in the "blue and white" style, and mixed delicate Song celadon ware, made for the Chinese imperial court, with Persian imitations. An exhibit of Islamic jades emphasized the Silk Road's role as a cultural conduit. In the past, the museum's curatorial staff has told history as a tale of Sinicization, and placed China at the center of the story. The new curators now emphasize history as a multivalent process, as an endless series of exchanges and dialogues. The new approach situates China within a complex network of nations and cultures, a network with plenty of common cultural references -- but without a clear center.
It is a clever post-colonial approach to the problem of nations and nationalism. The National Palace Museum's new curatorial approach allows the institution to sidestep questions of ownership and patrimony. By positioning itself as a museum for all of Asia, rather than a cultural steward for a single, definite nation, the Palace Museum also sidesteps another important question: To whom does the Palace Museum's collection belong? Whose patrimony resides here, in Taipei?