Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The National Palace Museum



Taiwan has many excellent museums, which I have thoroughly enjoyed visiting and writing about here (Taichung Folk Culture Museum, National Taiwan Museum, Taipei, Quake Museum in Wufeng, Natural History Museum, Taichung, The Woodcarving Museum in Sanyi, the Museum of World Religions in Yungho, Chimei Museum). I've been to the National Palace Museum many times, but I can't say that I've ever liked it. I've put up a page on it in relation to my parents' trip here.



Why? Take a look at the picture of the porcelain bowl above (note: photography is forbidden in the Museum. I was as astonished as anyone to discover these images in my camera). Every single object in the Museum is displayed that way.



The various galleries are simply endless piles of objects with the name and date on little cards next to them. The fearsome repetitiveness of the Museum, along with the lack of context, creates distance between the object and the observer that emphasizes the ignorance and unimportance of the latter. Such context as exists is provided by excessively academic explanation...



....rather than by exhibits and dioramas that depict the objects in ways that would enable visitors to connect with them, and to understand the context of their use and importance, and show how they are made. For example, though there are many objects of unutterable beauty....


...such as the famous Ching Dynasty Jade Cabbage, there is no exhibit on the evolution of techniques for working jade. Despite their awesome value, the objects in the National Palace Museum are essentially sterile -- they father no understandings on us. The National Palace Museum appears to be operated on the mentality of a hoarder and collector who has precisely labeled each treasure and knows exactly on which shelf it sits, rather than with the mentality of the educator who considers her treasures to be joys whose value lies in the stories they can tell. And that's sad....


One good thing about the Museum is the excellent gift shop, which includes both serious reproductions and out-and-out kitsch crap. Prices were quite reasonable. I scored this excellent ruler...


...offering a cheap reproduction of Lang Shih-ning's One Hundred Horses, my favorite painting, which, when you tilt it, also shows the Jade Cabbage, the Stone that Looks like Meat, and a bronze ting, thus trashing four of the world's great art treasures all in one souvenir. It was so tacky I fell in love instantly.


The Museum is set amidst beautiful hills, and the grounds are nice to take pictures and walk around in. There is an endless supply of stuff, the treasures being rotated every decade, so you'll never run out of things to see. But all in all, I can think of many museums I have been to on the island whose presentation and overall experience are far more enjoyable than that of the National Palace Museum.

7 comments:

David said...

I agree with you. The worst thing is they are sitting on an absolute gold mine. The value of their collection must be some mind-boggling number, but their return on investment must be incredibly low.

Anonymous said...

I was at the museum this afternoon and thought the same thing. The only part that was mildly interesting was the tiny exhibit on the third floor concerning the creation of bronze objects.

Clyde Warden said...

I've tried the audio recordings before that you carry with you and they were pretty good I thought. I agree Michael, the shop has really great prices compared with other gift shops around the world.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with you. The palace museum is an art museum. Of all the museums you mention only Sanyi and Chimei are art museums. It is very difficult to tell a story in an art museum. Sanyi starts with some story line but after the third exibit (the export after the world war) the plot just disappears.
I have not been to Chimei so I can't say anything but I heard the collector who seems to be quite an interesting person likes to collect a bit of everything and nothing. What you are refering to are carefully selected pieces for a small exhibition in Taichung. When I went to the Louvre I didn't see any explaination about the how and why of the different pieces. They just are there. The art museums I know that do have a nice story to tell are all very small or focus on one artist. If you have such a huge collection you also change the stuff constantly, and you have to preserve it as well, you will be limited in what you can do.
I agree with you that there is enormous potential (Hey, it is only a nearly complete collection of the last few thousand years of just a tiny one fourth of the world population;-), but at the same time I see that there are also limits to what you can do.
I agree with you that the evalotion of the working of jade is interesting, but when I saw the exhibits I was more interested in where the jade is found, how it is mined, what kind of effect it had on the region is was found, if it was worked where it was found, what the impact was on trade, what the magical properties of jade is in chinese tradition, why the circular shape with the hole in the middle for at least 5000 years, there must be some stories written about jade, some caligraphy, I bet ya it is some where in those caves, why don't you get it out? Ofcourse if they have all this I will start bitching that the explaination is not in english. And if it is in english, I will still bitch about the chinglish. Now let me start about the curioboxes (who used them what was therir life, how did that compare with the comon people...), or... no.. the bronze dishes (They wrote treaties on bronze before they had paper, how cool is that? What is in the treaty, what is the historical contect of that war? what can the KMT and DPP learn from this :p)... no the seal (why are there twenty stamps a on a piece of caligraphy, why did the emperor collect them? .....), ... or no no the caligraphy (styles, deveolopment of writing, can you read this? can your mainlander read this? what is your opinion about the simplified kanji in this context?....), eh... paintings (This is so fucking beautiful, I am running out of time, they close in five minutes, I need to come back)... religious objects...
I think you see what I mean.
You have to make choices.

I am interested, what would you propose to improve?
How do you visit a museum? And how should you ideally visit a museum?

mmm...

Michael Turton said...

I think you see what I mean.
You have to make choices.


Right. You have to make choices. But it doesn't follow from that that objects of important historical and artistic value need exist shorn of their historical contexts. You can define the National Palace Museum as an art museum if you like....but the pieces there are more than just art. The fact is that the Museum is excrutiatingly repetitive and dull, yet it could be so. much. more.

Mark S. said...

I've never found the National Palace Museum dull, though the practice there of dating objects merely by dynasty can be frustrating in the extreme. For example, something from the Qing dynasty could be from the mid seventeenth century to the early twentieth century. Qing dynasty? Hell, my grandmother is Qing dynasty. More precision, please.

Diane said...

I only had a couple hours here, and tried to absorb all that I saw in those few hours.

I have to admit the National Palace Museum is not as visitor-friendly as the National Art Museum in Taichung. There the art is ART, and ranges from very traditional stuff to very post-modern.

I thought the National Palace Museum had a nice jade collection, and was stunned by all their pieces, from the early jade axes to the exquisiteness of the jade cabbage.

I also marveled at the miniature carvings, like the Carved Olive Stone Boat and the tiny ivory boxes-within-boxes including working ivory chains.

I'm also not sure the point of the National Palace Museum is to learn about art, even though I personally think museums should be about educating people. I think the point is to marvel at the objects.

You're right that they have an excellent gift shop there. I think that gift store and the one in Taipei 101 were the best "tourist" gift shops I found when I was there.