Tuesday, May 3, 2016

National Palace Museum Southern Branch

The most important and expensive museum project for a long time - certainly since the National Museum of Taiwan History - the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院南部院區) finally opened its doors to the public a few days before the end of last year. I say ‘finally’ because the opening came several years later than originally scheduled. Among the various delays and controversies which dogged the project was the first architect quitting back several years ago.

Some have questioned the purpose of the museum, which according to Taiwan’s Executive Yuan (Cabinet Office) is to be ‘a world-class museum of Asian art and culture’. Famously, the NPM in Taipei has far more artefacts than it can display at any one time, but rather than provide additional exhibition space so more of these treasures can be shown to the public, the Southern Branch casts its net far beyond Greater China. A few people have wondered if this policy was part of efforts by President Chen Shui-bian (who gave the museum the green light in 2001) to water down Taiwan’s Han Chinese heritage, and thus build a distinctive and pro-independence Taiwanese identity. If this was the case, it’s surprising this aspect of the project wasn’t modified by President Ma Ying-jeou well before opening.

Daily visitor numbers are being capped, and reservations must be made in advance via the museum’s website, so getting into the Southern Branch isn’t easy. But thanks to my reporting background, I managed to jump the queue and pay a visit.

I took the high-speed railway to Chiayi because Chiayi HSR Station is much nearer to the museum in Taibao City (嘉義縣太保市, a city with a mere 37,200 inhabitants!) than Chiayi’s conventional train station. Rather than walk 4.6km on a damp day, I hopped aboard a minibus which stops at the museum before proceeding to Zhecheng Cultural Park (蔗埕文化園區), which is better known as Suantou Sugar Factory (蒜頭糖廠). There’s a bus every half hour (adults pay NT$24 one way). I was the only passenger.

The museum bus stop is 530m from the entrance, and none of the car parks are significantly closer, so visitors get a good look at the 70ha grounds before stepping inside. At the time of my visit, after some heavy rain, there seemed to be as much mud as grass. But I’m sure, within a few years when the trees have grown, these parklands will look marvelous.

In terms of providing barrier-free access for the elderly, pregnant and disabled, Taiwan is doing much better than a decade ago. I was pleased to see, at the visitors centre near the bus stop, golf carts available to take people to the door of the museum (NT$50 per person). At the same spot, bicycles can be rented (NT$100 for the whole day).

Opening hours are 9am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday, and getting into the museum costs most people NT$250. Until June 30 this year, residents of Yunlin and Chiayi counties and Tainan and Chiayi cities can get in for free, so long as they’ve made a reservation and they’re ROC citizens. Like the NPM in Taipei, the Southern Branch of the NPM is one of a handful of institutions which doesn’t believe in extending to tax-paying foreign residents of Taiwan the same benefits given to local citizens. Disappointing…

So is the museum worth the time and trouble? Externally, it’s striking but far from beautiful. I agree with those who’ve compare it to a giant black slug. It doesn’t come close to the Lanyang Museum, the landmark which made architect Kris Yao (姚仁喜) justly famous.

And inside? The Southern Branch has five permanent exhibitions, among them a multimedia gallery where three videos introducing Asian art play in rotation. As far as I could tell, none of the three has English subtitles. There’s also a brief and mostly monolingual look at the history of Chiayi. This focuses on folk beliefs, and displays some original documents relating to the suppression of Lin Shuang-wen’s rebellion.

Far better, in my opinion, are the sections on tea culture in East Asia, and on Buddhist artefacts drawn from the NPM’s collection. In the former I learned that steeping tea leaves in hot water is a relatively modern method of preparing the drink. The highlight of the latter is a kangyur (a compilation of Buddha’s sayings) in Tibetan script created for the Emperor Kangxi in 1669. Although the individual pages are quite plain, the boards made to protect and separate parts of the canon are quite fabulous, and made me think of the illuminated manuscripts drawn by Christian monks in medieval Europe.

Of the temporary exhibitions, one greatly impressed me: Treasures from Across the Kunlun Mountains: Islamic Jades in the NPM Collection will be here until October 12 this year. Among the dozens of items were lustrous tea cups, spittoons, Quran stands, and other prized exhibits fashioned from nephrite or jadeite. Several of the non-Chinese pieces are inlaid with precious stones or gold thread.

Jade art is often thought of as quintessentially Chinese, but here were exquisite objets d’art from Mughal India or the westernmost provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the former were gifted to Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735 to 1796), who believed these imports were better than any produced by Chinese artists.

For me, the Southern Branch’s lack of paintings and other two-dimensional arts makes it currently less interesting than its big sister in Taipei. I’ll be back, no doubt, but not very soon.

(The photo is taken from the museum's Chinese-language Wikipedia page.)

No comments:

Post a Comment