In my former role as correspondent for The Art Newspaper Dec 2010
A delegation headed by Cai Wu, China’s minister of culture, visited Taiwan in September, the latest sign that cultural relationships across the straights that separate the island from the Communist mainland are improving. Foremost on the group’s itinerary was a tour of the National PalaceMuseum, Taipei, the home since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 of a large collection of artefacts that were originally housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing.
“It was his first visit,” said Kong-shin Chou, the director of the Palace Museum. “It was to set up exchange relationships with Taiwan.” These began last year resulting in an exhibition of Tibetan art, followed by “Dynastic Renaissance” about the art of the Southern Song Dynasty (until 26 December). “We have borrowed items from six museums in Zhejiang [Province], three museums in Fujian, the Shanghai museum and Liaoning museum. And two Japanese museums, so it is quite a big international exhibition,” she said .Chou pointed out that as Taiwan has an anti-seizure law that prevents claims being made on visiting collections. As the UK now has such a law in place there will be a loan exhibition to the UK at some point, she said. “Because of the economic recession it stopped right now, arranging an exhibition needs a lot of energy and financial support, ” Chou said. She also said the US have made a second application, and an exhibition will likely go ahead within two years there of artifacts from the Palace Museum. “Japan is also in the process of setting up this law, so maybe will have an exhibition there earlier than the US one,” she added.
Besides artefacts from mainland China, the Palace Museum is also hosting and exhibition of Greek artefacts on loan from the British Museum. “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece, runs until 7 February 2011.
Of the museum’s own collection, Chou said that the bulk not displayed in its permanent galleries are stored in an administrative building and two tunnels under the nearby mountain, one 150 meters long and the other 170 meters. “We have a lot of ceramics stored there,” she said. There are around 700,000 objects in the collection. “The collection is growing fast. When I came back, I asked the government for an acquisitions budget, for a certain period they didn’t buy, as buying had caused a lot of accusations (about corruption), so this made problems for the running of the museum, so they were scared you know, but 2008 and 2009 we were in an economic recession, so that is a good time to buy things, at a good price, good quality and low price.”
Chou strongly supports mainland China’s aggressive collecting of works abroad, and commented on issues of provenance and ethics dogging some purchases made by the mainland “For us, the first thing is the provenance. We have professional museum ethics, as a museum you need to follow ethics, we cooperate with collectors, and we look at the long history of the collection and the reputation, for instance we bought the whole Tsai family collection, over 2,000 pieces of artworks, including 1864 19-20th century paintings, calligraphy and antiquities. They were bankrupted and this work was confiscated by a bank.” Chou said there are still some negotiations underway on the price.
Commenting on rumours that a part of the collection was diverted to Hong Kong or another port during the civil war, and was lost Chou says is “impossible. Three ships came, I worked with the senior colleagues, from that time, I started in 1972, the senior curators were still living, they told us, the young new comers, all the stories about how hard they worked to protect the collection, some even sacrificed their lives, this collection was traveling from place to place, no single piece has been lost. [During the war] the collection travelled from Beijing to Shanghai, then Nanjing, then Chongqing, then Anshun, then Ermei, then after the second world war ended, back to Nanjing, then they wanted to ship it back to the north, but the communists took the region, and so about one third (of the entire Forbidden City collection) shipped to Taiwan. Altogether there were more than 19 thousand crates, but we shipped only 4,000 crates. These went to Shanghai, and then we chose the masterpieces, to go to Taiwan, the rest were left, some in Nanjing. Some are still in Nanjing, they don’t want to give them back to Beijing. They are fighting, the Nanjing Museum and the PalaceMuseum (in Beijing). So the collection is now in three parts, in Beijing, Nanjing, and Taiwan.
Last year the Palace Museum attracted some 2.5 million visitors, and this year the number is projected to rise to 3 million. The museum is getting more visitors from mainland China as relations thaw, “This is our challenge,” Chou said. “We are training our staff, on how the audience can have a pleasant visit. We open earlier and close later now as well. The Executive Yuan has allowed themuseum more staff on a temporary basis, who conduct work such as politely telling loud visitors to be quieter by putting a finger to the lips, “they do this gesture and smile,” she said. The museum has more than 600 staff, and more than 500 volunteers.
She is in the process of setting up a branch in southern Taiwan to display these and its other treasure that include [add line about other things in collection]. The original plan fell into trouble, due to issues arising from the originally selected architect firm. The plan has now had to go back to the Taiwan legislature for re-approval. The Palace Museum has applied for a budget of $250 million for construction and running of the new museum, which has a projected annual attendance of between 565,000 to 888,000, and planned exhibitions once it is built are for thematic exhibitions, such as of Islamic jade, textiles, tea culture, porcelain, and digital art. “The project has been rethought, and we have sent this new plan to the Executive Yuan for approval. The museum building plan will be under the government agency the Construction and Planning Agency, under the Minister of Interior, they will take over this part of the plan. We are not specialists on building. There is no change to the budget or the plan. Once approved there will be a competition for the architectural design.” Chou said. “the Guomingdang (the ruling Nationalist Party) support this project, this is no problem, it is how we can do the job well, is the issue. It’s a huge project.”
Chou became director of the Palace Museum having risen through the ranks. “I was quite lucky, I had 27 years working experience at the museum, and my experience is different to others, I started as a tour guide, French and English, then became secretary to two directors, then 16 years as head of education and PR, then I left the museum for nine years to work in a university, where I set up amuseum study program, at the Furen Catholic University. So I combined theory and practice when I came back to work at the Palace Museum.” While she was working at the university she worked on exhibitions with the Metropolitan Museum and the Grand Palais as chief curator. “So when I came back I knew what I could do for the museum, and also how to train the staff. So when I came back, first I attracted the young people, as the museum still had some distance with the young people, so I designed a special program, firstly performing arts, we invite bands to come and perform at theMuseum, we provide financial support, and every Saturday we have a late opening until 8.30 pm. This attracts young people to go into the museum, young families as well, you can see three generations coming together on the weekend, so I started this in October 2008 and the second thing is I have worked on is the website, e learning… I know young people from my university years. I have set up all kinds of educational programes for people from different ages and backgrounds, such as disabled, and even for prisoners, we go to the prison for exhibitions and talks, and we have a special program (a summer and winter camp) for teenagers who have dropped out of school. This is a cultural and learning center. That people of all backgrounds will like the Museum, this is our purpose. I want people to love, use and learn from the Palace Museum, it is my slogan.”
Another of Chou’s initiatives is working with industry. “For industrial education we want industry to improve their cultural knowledge, so we have an Industry Cultural Creativity Camp, we have seminars for them, and for the site (currently a car park) we will build the center. When I came back I asked for two things, one of them was to give me the territory, the site I mean, where now is a huge ugly parking lot and apartments, that belongs to us right now. In the future it will be a Industry Cultural Creativity center. And the second thing I asked for was an MRT station. And now the Taipei government has a plan to build it within 10 years.”
The Palace Museum has already started an programme to train industry professionals, which started in 2009. “We choose those companies to cooperate with us, we chose 15 companies, that provide a team, I don’t want just a designer, I want a team, that consists of a chief executives, marketing people, finance, as well as designer. After training, when they have a creative work, they can work independently, or we invite them to co brand, and they pay royalty. (Products created by this process are sold in the Museum gift shop and other venues). The training is free, but there is one condition, you cannot drop a class, if you miss two or three times you are out. Its very strict, we need them to concentrate to learn, its every Saturday, all day for 6 months. So a lot of CEOs, if they are abroad, they have to fly back. So we don’t want to waste our energy. so we do it like this, you learn well. The first two months we open their 5 senses, and then the second two months they get to know and sense the objects, and the third period we allow them to view the collection, via our digital archives, because we have digitalised our collection, and then they begin to design, which must be handed in, and then we invite scholars and famous designers to criticize their design, and then they can work on their own, and they can show the work to us, and we can see if we do the co branding. This is why I am different, I know how to train, to form a person. After this 6 months they can come any time, they can sign in, this is a platform, for them to learn Chinese culture, art.”
Chou said this program is now working with large corporations from Taiwan, and abroad. She said they have chosen companies such as Giant, France for porcelain, Crown for tiles, and Xinguang for textiles, and now some major international brands such as Bulgari for jewelry design, have approached the museum. “They noticed our project is good, we have attracted the attention of international brands, as China is now hot, Chinese art elements,” she said.
For the fashion industry the museum is also working on a project on colour, in cooperation with Taiwan Creativity Design Center, and the Economic Ministry, we are researching colours from the Song Dynasty. We will provide the results of this research on Song colours relating to paper, textiles, paints, ceramics, and we will apply this, we will make this available, to next year’s fashion industry. “The colours will be presented to the world’s fashion designers next March. The catalogue of the colours will be made available for purchase.” Interview by Chris Gill