The English-language tours offered twice daily provide a concise introduction to the vast collection housed in one of the world's great museums.
The English-language tours offered twice daily provide a concise introduction to the vast collection housed in one of the world's great museums. By Jeffrey Moser Each week, Mary Miller is confronted with a new challenge. As a volunteer tour guide at the National Palace Museum, she is faced with the task of introducing one of the world's most famous and diverse collections of Chinese art to an audience of unknown size and background. Regardless of whether she's dealing with African ambassadors or twelve year-old American kids, Miller's goal -- shared by every guide at the Museum -- is to illuminate the mysteries and wonder of Chinese art. But as anyone who has ever taught or spoken in public knows, different audiences have different needs. And the last thing that visitors to the National Palace Museum could be called is homogeneous. On any given day, the Museum's doors may welcome art historians, traditional Chinese artists, Japanese tour groups, American businessmen, French politicians, local elementary school students, and farmers from Pingtung. These visitors arrive with different desires and expectations. Some will come to be educated, some for aesthetic stimulation, and some for recreation. (And some, frankly, will come for a cool air-conditioned respite from the summer heat). With such a diversity of interests and expectations, how is the Museum to tailor its message? Written explanations posted in the galleries are perhaps the simplest and most direct way for the Museum curators to communicate with the public. These notes have the advantage of being optional -- visitors can read about the objects that interest them and skip the rest. Student of Chinese history or art may be dissatisfied with the relatively limited labeling that accompanies most exhibits. But the curators in the Museum's Painting and Calligraphy Department say the practice results less from the tight exhibition schedules and limited budgets than from a deliberate attempt to minimize the visual clutter surrounding the art. Although most foreigners view the Museum as an inroad to understanding Chinese history and culture, and so want as much explanation as possible, many local visitors come for the aesthetic experience of viewing a painting or piece of calligraphy in a minimalist state, framed by an unobtrusive wall of monotone color. Imagine what Western art lovers would say if the Louvre posted a long biography of Leonardo da Vinci, in blocky Chinese script, next to the Mona Lisa. This is where the Museum's tour guides come in. Designed to be adaptable to the needs and expectations of diverse audiences, the Museum's tour program employs over a dozen full-time professional guides, each of whom speaks at least one foreign language in addition to their native Chinese, as well as a staff of over 300 volunteers. Free tours are offered to the public twice daily in both Chinese and English, together with occasional tours in French and Taiwanese. The Museum also provides specially scheduled tours in Japanese, German, and Spanish for guests sponsored by local organizations. (Despite its large number of Japanese visitors, the Museum does not provide regular tours in Japanese, primarily because most of these visitors come in large tour groups with their own guides. Several on-staff guides do speak fluent Japanese, however, and are available for special tours.) The tours vary not only in language but also in content. In recognition of the relatively limited background of most foreign visitors, the English and other foreign language tours generally present a broad overview of the collection. Many of the Chinese tours, by contrast, focus on a single portion of the collection, such as early bronzes or landscape paintings, and are thus able to provide in-depth information suitable for those with a solid understanding of Chinese language and history. Of course, no tour, not even a hundred tours, can take it all in. Less than one percent of the Museum's collection is ever on display at one time, and that fraction of one percent fills three floors and several gallery extensions to capacity. While over 80% of the Museum's collection of over 650,000 items consists of books and documents, that still leaves some 23,000 ceramic vessels, over 5000 bronzes, and five to six thousand paintings and works of calligraphy. On top of that are thousands of miscellaneous jade carvings, pieces of enamel and lacquerware, Buddhist ritual objects, and carvings of wood, bamboo, ivory, and rhinoceros horn. With pieces dating from as early as 6000 B.C. to the twentieth century, the Museum's holdings are a testament to the artistic accomplishments of the many cultures that came to be known collectively as Chinese civilization. Most of the collection was originally amassed by China's emperors, the "Sons of Heaven," who filled the halls of Peking's Forbidden City -- and before that, the imperial palaces of the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties -- with both the treasures of antiquity and the great works of their own day. The marks of these "collectors on high" are everywhere -- in the enormous red imperial seals impressed on the paintings, in the ornately carved display stands designed to hold archaic jades, and in the many poetic accolades and other comments (typically known as "colophons") that they inscribed upon not only paintings and works of calligraphy, but also pieces of ceramic, jade, and enamel. With so much stuff, what is a tour guide to do? "My goal is to share my astonishment with the collection," says Miller, "to focus on the tremendous stories behind each individual piece." Her tours typically start with one or two early bronzes, the inscriptions of which speak of ancient kings and nobles, who cast the bronzes to commemorate their exploits on the fields of battle or diplomacy. Then she moves on to the ceramics gallery, where she first introduces the sublime celadons [pottery with a pale-green glaze] of the Song dynasty. Fashioned nearly a thousand years ago, these ceramics are contemporary to the Middle Ages of Europe, a chronological contrast which Miller uses to emphasize the early sophistication of the Chinese empire. The connection to the West is made more explicit when she moves on to the famous blue-and-white porcelain of the Ming (1368-1644) dynasty, much of which was fashioned for export to markets in Portugal, Holland, and the other maritime powers of Europe. Next the tour heads to the jade gallery, where Miller makes a point to explain the differences between jadeite and nephrite, both "jade" in popular usage, but very different in both mineralogical structure and history (while Chinese craftsmen only began working with jadeite in the eighteenth century, the sculpting of nephrite dates back millennia, to the very beginnings of Chinese civilization). Then it's on to paintings, where Miller tries to bring out the artistic personality behind each work, and the relationship between that individual artist and the socio-political environment of his day. Miller's frequent discussions of trade, politics, and society may, to some connoisseurs and art-lovers, seem tertiary to the stylistic and compositional qualities of the works. Yet her emphasis on socio-economic context is quite deliberate. Many of the visitors on the Museum's English language tours are foreign business people. Most are in Taiwan for a very short time -- just a couple of days -- and the Museum is quite likely the only cultural attraction they will be able to squeeze into their busy schedules. As Miller puts it: "They're overworked, jet-lagged, and exhausted. They're focused on the business that brought them to Taiwan, and have little mental energy left over for something as different from their own experience as Chinese art." But what she and most of the other English-language tour guides at the Museum have discovered is that, by drawing connections between the collection and such topics as trade and politics -- issues of fundamental importance to most international business people -- they are able to draw in audiences and make something as obscure as blue-and-white porcelain suddenly relevant and poignant. A ceramic bowl becomes much more than a pretty thing in a glass case when one realizes that it was an integral commodity in an international trading system that moved tea, silk, and porcelain (which also served as ballast for the ships) from China to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The trade in turn brought huge amounts of silver bullion to China from Spanish colonies in the Americas, via Manila -- an influx that had enormous impact on Chinese currency liquidity and tax policies. Of course, the tour outlined above is just one example. There is no standard tour at the Museum, and every guide describes pieces and discusses issues of art history of their own choosing. The result is infinite variation. No two tours are alike, not even those given by the same guide. The Museum places a premium on ongoing learning, and by providing access to its extensive library resources and by sponsoring a wide variety of lecture series and gallery talks, it encourages guides to continually expand their knowledge of the collection. Many guides make it a point to try to include at least one new item in every tour. In the end, the flexibility of the tours works to the visitor's advantage. Newcomers to the field are drawn in with fascinating stories and relevant contextual information. Frequent guests are always presented with something new. The result is essentially a course in the art, history, and traditions of Chinese civilization -- with a flexible schedule, no grades, no pressure, and no end. And best of all...it's free. Note: The National Palace Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. every day of the year. Admission is NT$100 for adults, NT$50 for those with student IDs, and gratis for children below school age.
The Collection's Odyssey to a Safe Haven
So You Want to Be a Palace Museum Guide Each year, the National Palace Museum holds an in-depth program to train English-speaking foreigners to be volunteer museum guides. The program, which typically runs for four months, from September through December, features thrice-weekly lectures and extensive readings on all aspects of the Museum's collection, from Neolithic jade to late Qing dynasty painting. Students are tested with regular written quizzes and an on-site midterm and final, where they are expected to give a tour to both an instructor and their fellow students. Application to the program is competitive, with only five to ten students selected each year. The result is a small class where instructors have the time to address each student's questions individually. Participants tend to reflect the foreign community of Taipei, with many nationalities and backgrounds represented. The program is intensive, requiring 40 or more hours per week, and thus tends to attract people with a bit of time on their hands, often spouses of foreign businesspeople and diplomats. The course is not only an excellent education in Chinese art but for many participants represents a wellspring of mental health. As one volunteer explained, "I have a university degree and have worked my entire adult life, but moving to Taiwan meant that I couldn't work any longer." Under such conditions, a good way to stave off depression is to find a new source of intellectual stimulation. In that respect, the program generally receives high marks from its participants, who enjoy both its social and educational aspects. In the words of Mary Miller, "It was my savior." Information about applying can be found on the Museum's website at http://www.npm.gov.tw.
--- J.M. [Side Bar] Shung Ye Museum Presents Aboriginal Culture By Richard Dobson Taiwan is one of the world's best places to view Chinese antiques and artifacts. The National Palace Museum alone houses the single biggest collection of imperial Chinese pieces in the world. But if you're looking for exhibits of artifacts and historical information on Taiwan's own native people, you might have a tough time. Well-structured and well-stocked museums on Taiwanese native culture are rare. That's what makes the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines such a great find. Shung Ye provides excellent insight into the lives of the island's original inhabitants. Just up the road from the National Palace Museum, the museum was founded in 1995 by Lin Chin-fu, a businessman in the automotive industry, as a way of repaying society for his commercial success. Lin had long been fascinated with aboriginal culture, and most of the 2,000 pieces in the museum were donated from his personal collection. While many other businessmen have established corporate museums filled with Chinese or Western art and antiques, Lin was determined to preserve and promote what some scholars have labeled as a "sunset culture." The exhibitions are spread across four floors beginning with an interactive map in the lobby that illustrates through flashing lights all of the 11 tribes that populate the island. Upstairs the curators have built highly elaborate life-sized dioramas of elements of aboriginal life, such as the traditional semi-underground houses constructed on Orchid Island by the Yami tribe to keep them safe from typhoons and the heat. Also on display are weaving looms, hunting weapons (including basic hand-made muskets and knives), musical instruments (such as one-stringed mouth harps, complete with a recorded demonstration available at the touch of a button), and brightly colored handmade clothes. In the basement visitors learn about some of the darker history of the Taiwanese native people through photos and artifacts on the one-time practice of headhunting. Some menacing ceremonial armor is also on display, but according to curators it was worn to appear friendly to strangers such as the Japanese colonists and not -- as it appears -- to ward people away. Throughout the museum there are touch-screen terminals offering introductions to exhibits in both Chinese and English, although the text is often insufficiently clear. Starting September 19 and running through to January will be an exhibition of artifacts from the Ryukai tribe from the Kaohsiung, Pingtung, and Taitung areas. The Ryukai, one of the smaller tribes, numbers only around 8,000 people. The museum (Tel: 02-2841-2611) is located at 282 Zhishan Road, Section 2, and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and from January 20 to February 20.