Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ancient Treasures: National Palace Museum and Shung Ye Aborigines Museum

The last hurrah of the conference was a guided tour to the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines and the National Palace Museum. The former educates about the 16 indigenous tribes of Taiwan, and the latter displays precious artifacts from Chinese history and culture.

Here we go! In front of the National Palace Museum.
The first people came to the island of Taiwan several thousand years ago (the exact date is debated) and lived very simple lives. Some of the tribes were matrilineal, which I found intriguing. Each tribe used local material to build their homes, ranging from shale rock to bamboo poles and grass. Our personal tour guide was fun and informative, and she did a great job describing the aborigines' way of life using the most interesting parts of the exhibits. For example, she narrated a video about making clothes that gave me a deeper appreciation for the bajillion-step process, from scraping thread out of fibrous plant stalks to weaving the final garment. What a time commitment! Pro tip: when visiting a museum, get a tour guide - they can turn a static artifact into a living piece of history.

Before we started the tour, we watched a 10-minute animated video about a native tribe. At least, I think that's what it was about. As far as I could tell, the movie showed a native hunter who was obsessed with hunting down a legendary boar the size of a mountain. However, when he shot the arrow at the boar, the boar turned into a Dutchman! Then he ran to the shore only to find a fort full of Dutchmen fighting against the invading Chinese! Then he ran back into the forest, ran through 500 years of history, and came out on a modern-day hunting ground - a baseball field!! I really think I'm missing something about Asian entertainment.

But, I was not the only one confused. The best comment came from my colleague as we were filing out of the theater: "I think the point was that if you ever meet an aborigines hunter, don't look like a boar."

The National Palace Museum was a complete shift in atmosphere. This museum teemed with guests, so we all had headphones and a radio frequency set to match our tour guide. I died a little inside - I always make fun of those dorky tour groups in my head, and now...I was one of them! My only consolation was that we were not the only headset-toting group in the museum.

Oh yes, we were THAT group.
The National Palace Museum in Taiwan was built to house many items transferred from the sister National Palace Museum in China. There are almost 700,000 pieces in the entire Taiwanese collection, but only 3,000 are on display at any given time. The other items are kept deep in the caves behind the museum to avoid being damaged by earthquakes. Perhaps there will be even more items in the future from the unexplored tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China's very first emperor. As of now the tomb has not been opened because a) certain painted pieces lose color vibrancy as soon as they are exposed to light, and b) the tomb is surrounded by mercury deposits, which are toxic. Huh - that's a hindsight, it was great looting protection to build the tomb in the middle of a moat of toxic mercury, but at the time they did it because they thought mercury bestowed immortality. Whoops...

There were many valuable and impressive artifacts in the museum, but among the ones that struck me the most were:

- A breathtaking folding panel screen with jadeite insets, given as a gift to the reigning emperor of the time.
- Ivory carvings so intricate they could only be made by chemically softening the ivory first.
- Pottery and porcelain glazing advances through the years, giving brighter and brighter colors over time.
- Glaze colors so loved by the royalty that no one else could use the exact same shade.
- 1000-year-old bronze work so beautiful that it helped me realize why China was considered a world powerhouse in ancient times - they knew their stuff!
The view from the entrance of the National Palace Museum, and me up on the plaza area.
Upon returning to the hotel, I trudged down the street to get a Subway sandwich with a colleague and then called it a night. Tomorrow will be a new day with new adventures. More to come!

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