Children at the National Palace Museum
from the Taiwan Review
Richard Fortey, a renowned paleontologist of the Natural History Museum in London and an award-winning writer, is a passionate advocate of museums. 'I believe profoundly in the importance of museums; I would go as far as to say that you can judge a society by the quality of its museums,' he has written. If that idea is accurate, then Taiwan's society is progressing from strength to strength as the quality and number of its museums develop apace.
In fact, Fortey's fame is in large part due to his enthusiasm and skill in explaining complex knowledge to lay readers through his books. It is a role he shares with the best museums around the world, including those in Taiwan, of collecting and researching specimens and phenomena, and then finding ways to communicate that knowledge to the public through exhibitions and other events.
There were about 580 public and private museums in Taiwan at the end of 2007, up from approximately 400 in 2000. In particular, private museums have seen rapid growth in the past decade, with collections as diverse as those of the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, the Miniatures Museum of Taiwan and the Chi Mei Museum of Western art and historical artifacts.
This development is not without its challenges, however. Private museums in particular, often created through the efforts of individual enthusiasts or single enterprises, need more than the support of one individual or business if they are to be sustainable in the long term.
A challenge to both public and private museums in Taiwan is the recruitment of professional museum staff. As Fortey puts it, 'the people who work out of sight are what keeps a museum alive.' There are several graduate-level museum studies programs here and many other schools that have related courses in arts management, but more expertise is needed, especially in developing scholarship around the assessment of Taiwan's museums in terms of visitor education and the long-term impact of an institution.
One museum that is devoting resources to visitor education is the renowned National Palace Museum (NPM). For example, up to 10 percent of staff at the NPM are involved with using multimedia and interactive displays to enhance exhibitions. In fact, finding ways to engage visitors will be key for the continued success of public and private institutions alike. 'Without an audience, a museum is merely a warehouse,' says Wang Chi-hsiang, an associate researcher and manager of the Volunteer Program at the National Science and Technology Museum in Kaohsiung City.
Reaching out to the local community is certainly a theme that has been taken up by the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung. The museum works to improve accessibility such as by organizing tours for elderly people and students in remote regions, hosting a section for children and resources for teachers, and even maintaining an open sculpture park surrounding the museum.
At the same time, focusing on local-level communities reflects a general trend toward the decentralization of public museums in Taiwan over the last 20 years. Since 1987, the Council for Cultural Affairs, which oversees public museums in Taiwan, has worked toward establishing museums based on local traditions, crafts and cultures. This represents a major shift from both the colonial aims of Taiwan's first museums set up during the period of Japanese rule (1895-1945), as well as the focus on traditional Chinese culture that followed. There are also sound economic incentives in such a move. The establishment of the Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum, for example, has both capitalized on and boosted the local traditional ceramics industry based in Yingge Township.
Taiwan's museums mirror its culturally rich society, and the diversity and sheer number of institutions certainly reflect the wide-ranging interests, knowledge and understanding of its people. Museum enthusiast Richard Fortey has good reason to believe so strongly in the importance of these institutions to a society.
This above article appears in the online April edition of Taiwan Review at taiwanreview.nat.gov.tw.