Dealing with a major renovation, debates over the museum's prospective southern branch in Chiayi, and groundbreaking digitization of the museum's holdings, Director Shi Shou-chien, a scholar by training, bears a weighty responsibility as he guides the museum into the future. (Yang hung-hsi)
The National Palace Museum turns 80 this October.
As the museum turns 80, it faces a series of unprecedented challenges. These include the first major renovation of the museum's main building, redefining the museum's identity, discussion over the museum's southern branch in Chiayi, and emerging fusion of digital technology and the arts. We asked Shih, who was trained as a scholar of Chinese calligraphy and painting, what kind of outlook he will bring as he leads the museum into the future?
Q: When you think about the National Palace Museum's identity as the country's premier museum, how do you think it should change, and in what respects do you think it should not change?
A: Over the last 80 years, the museum can be understood to have had two main stages to its mission. For the first 40 years, while it was in mainland China, the museum's collection was moved about to protect its national treasures. For the next 40 years, after the completion of its Taipei facilities in 1965, the museum served as a storehouse for traditional Chinese culture, putting on exhibitions and engaging in outreach and education.
In the future, the museum will not restrict itself simply to being a guardian of the cultural tradition, or passively serving as an exhibition space. Rather, it will join the new global culture by actively promoting interaction between the past and the future, the local and the global.
Q: Could I ask you to elaborate on what you mean by "interaction"?
A: The establishment of the museum's southern branch in Chiayi illustrates this point well. Many people were worried about how to reconcile its identity as a museum of "Asian art" with the museum's existing identity, and whether this new focus would take away from the National Palace Museum's uniqueness. These concerns are allayed, however, by the fact that the 60% of the southern branch's holdings will be taken from the National Palace Museum's collection, which are attractive enough in and of themselves. However, at the southern branch, these works would be interpreted through the perspective of Asian art. For example Jingdezhen blue and white porcelains of the Qing period were traded to the Middle East. Because of high demand, countries in the Middle East also began purchasing blue and white porcelain from Japan, leading to the rise of Imari porcelain. In return, China also began producing Imari porcelain, with Vietnam also following suit with its own version of the porcelain. Thus, because of such interactions all across Asia, porcelain may be seen as a symbol of Asian economic and cultural exchange at this point in history.
Q: When compared with other internationally renowned museums, what would you say are the National Palace Museum's key strengths as well as weaknesses?
A: In terms of strengths and weaknesses, we're speaking of two sides of the same coin. The museum houses an unrivalled collection of Chinese dynastic treasures, but this also means that, unlike the Metropolitan Museum or British Museum's collections, which include collections from all around the world, the National Palace Museum's collections are concentrated in one area. But I think that this okay, that we don't need to try to shore up the museum's collections in those other areas, since we cannot behave as the 17th century naval powers did in simply taking what they wanted into their possession.
Thus, while we shall not change the focus of our collection as we move into this new century, we do need new interpretive lenses with which to view our holdings. For example, the museum possesses a large number of tributary goods acquired by generations of dynastic houses. If we were to hold an exhibit on "The Cultural World of the Qianlong Emperor," we would discover many cultural artifacts from Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, artifacts that have always in the museum but that have tended to be obscured when viewed through a Sinocentric lens. We rediscover these artifacts when we look at them with fresh eyes. This is the kind of new vision that need at the National Palace Museum that can empower us anew. If we now take a look at these cultural artifacts from a fresh point of view, then we discover their richness anew.
Q: In terms of revitalizing a venerable institution such as the National Palace Museum, what have you found most challenging? Has visitorship been declining in recent years?
A: There has been a slight decrease, declines due to SARS and renovation aside, although for many years now there has not been that much fluctuation in attendance.
Personnel-wise, the museum's research staff remains top-notch. However, adapting to our new mission and a more corporate management style does not necessarily come easily to us.
Museums like the Metropolitan are themselves corporations that engage in the design and development of their own products. They have departments that we do not have, such as business development units. Thus, we are also creating a brand identity for our museum, licensing the rights to the private sector to develop products.
Q: What kind of progress has the museum made, or what kind of challenges has it faced in terms of licensing rights to the digital images coming out of the digital archives?
A: In the past, the main difficulty has been in people not knowing what the museum actually has in its archives. Not knowing how to navigate those holdings, our authorized retailers have as a result been unable to promote these images to their customers. It has traditionally been too expensive to create a catalog all of the museum's holdings.
Now, by means of the digital archive and the Internet, the public at large, the creative community, and various types of industries are able to easily gain the use of these cultural resources.
The digital archiving project is extremely important to us. This resource has yet to be fully tapped, primarily because of the question of how to manage these digital rights. How can we guard against forgery? How would we deal with violators? We have not been able to place all of our holdings out there since many of the relevant laws and regulations have yet to be formulated.
Q: What special programs can we expect during next year's 80th anniversary exhibition?
A: The 80th anniversary exhibition will gather Northern Song paintings and calligraphic works, Ru Kiln porcelain, and Song block printed books, among the finest pieces that the National Palace Museum possesses. You might not see all these works together again in your lifetime. But there is another reason that we have selected the Song dynasty as a focal point.
The Song period (10th through 12th centuries) was a time when Chinese art was being defined, discussed, appreciated, and stimulated, truly a classic age of creativity. For our 80th anniversary, we want to revisit how historic patterns were created and to explore whether there might be a modern-day revival of tradition, seeking out what is most important to us.
I'll let you in on a little secret. Aside from recent collaborations with designers and filmmakers, we have also been working with the author Chang Ta-chun. He himself has been interested in the lives of Song literati, and has been spending a great deal of time with the museum's Northern Song experts. Chang will be using that historical period as a backdrop for his latest work, which debuts next October during the museum's anniversary celebrations. This should be an even to watch for!