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Exchange visit to the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

Pauline Webber
Senior Conservator, Paper Section, Conservation Department

In 1989 a programme of staff exchanges was proposed between the National Palace Museum, Taipei and the V&A Museum. The programme was agreed between the Directors of the two museums, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll (in consultation with the Far Eastern Department of the V&A) and Ch'in Hsaio-i. As a first step, Chan Hsiang-wen, a member of the conservation division at the NPM visited the V&A for one month in September 1990. It was suggested that I should return the visit in October 1991, and I welcomed the trip as an opportunity to see the world's largest collection of Asian art.

The collection of the National Palace Museum dates back to the Sung dynasty (960-1279) and includes perhaps the most important of China's treasures. Nontheless, the objects represent only a quarter of those previously held in the Imperial Palace and have an extremely chequered history.

Fig 1. The National Palace

Fig 1. The National Palace (click image for larger version)

In November 1924 the provisional Nationalist Government in Peking gave the last surviving Manchu Emperor Pu-Yi and his entourage two hours to evacuate the Forbidden City. Within a few hours the government sent a team of experts into the Imperial Palace. The team was instructed to clean, identify and catalogue the articles that remained. Much of the collection had been removed for various reasons. Items from it were later to appear in auctions and are now scattered around the world. It took the team several years to organise the collection but eventually the government formally established the National Palace Museum and began to display some of the treasures. They had time for only one exhibition before the Japanese invaded in 1931. It was felt that at least some of the collection should be evacuated, so several thousands of crates were packed with paintings, porcelain, and bronze works, together with hundreds of boxes of other artefacts. 'On February 4th 1933 the people working in the Imperial Palace were given orders to remove the cases and in the middle of the night lines of wheelbarrows one after another made their way from the Forbidden Palace to the train station.'1 Thus began what must have been the most difficult courier trip that ever was. The treasures were shuttled back and forth across China by rail, truck, wheelbarrow and oxcart, raft and foot 'always just a few steps ahead of the Japanese and later the communist Chinese troops.'2

During the Second World War parts of the collection were involved in many more hair-raising incidents, which included travel across the Chinling Mountains and storage in caves. After the war the collection was fmally gathered together and shipped back to Nanking where the first post-war exhibition was held in the following spring. A year and a half later, the Communists took control of the mainland giving rise to yet another move, this time to Taiwan. Only part of the collection was shipped to Taiwan, arriving in Keelung Harbour on 22nd February 1949. It was stored in temporary accommodation (a sugar warehouse) in Taichung, where it remained until the Museum building in Wai-Shuang-Hsi opened in 1965.

The Palace Museum is situated north of Taipei in the suburb of Wai-Shuang-Hsi. The contemporary exhibition area and administration blocks were built in the 1980s, but their style is in keeping with the main museum - an impressive example of palace architecture with heavy green and yellow glazed roofs, dragon decorations, and ornamental staircases leading to the formal gardens below. To the east of the Museum are the Chih-shan gardens, built in the tradition of a Sung garden. It is landscaped with lakes and interlocking foot paths and occupies some 16,000 square metres.

The main building provides over 50,000 square metres of exhibition space on several levels, in over twenty exhibition rooms, each covering a particular area. On the ground floor is the Orientation Gallery with a special exhibition on the relationship between Chinese and world culture. On the top floor is the tea-room in the style of the Imperial study of the Chien-Lung Emperor, where not only is a variety of Chinese teas served, but curios, porcelain teaware and pieces of furniture are exhibited.

Most exhibits are displayed in chronological order and have explanations written in both Chinese and English. Some displays, such as the lacquerware, are exhibited with additional information and diagrams which illustrate the techniques employed. Explanatory sheets are available in all galleries. Videos and slides are shown daily in Chinese and English and guided tours are conducted in most languages. Photography is banned in the Museum but slides and videos of the collection are available for sale.

The galleries are simple and spacious, and all exhibits are shown in cases with the light-levels kept low throughout. Recording thermohydrographs were used for monitoring galleries and are maintained weekly by conservation staff.

The collection is comprehensive in all areas of ceramics, calligraphy and painting, ritual bronzes, Manchurian and Mongolian archives, and rare books from the Imperial Library. In addition, it has examples of jade, lacquerware, curios, jewellery, enamels and embroideries. Some of the displays are permanent while other exhibits are on temporary display. Paintings and calligraphy, for example, are rotated every three months but other objects, such as Hindustan jades and some bronze pieces, are rotated at two-year intervals. Some special exhibitions, such as the annual 'Exhibition of Treasured Paintings', are displayed for one month only.

Working in the Museum are around 400 full-time members of staff who are collected daily by a fleet of buses from surrounding Taipei, to ensure their punctual morning arrival (there is no underground rail system in Taiwan). Other staff needs have also been considered with facilities such as a grocery shop, squash courts, a shrine and a restaurant (the latter, although shared by the public, provides a special low-cost lunch for staff).

Most entertaining and discussion takes place in the restaurant where there are several small adjoining dining rooms for the privacy of guests and parties. Lunch is from 11.30am until 2pm. Walking to the shrine on the opposite hill is a favourite activity at lunchtime, but a stick should be taken to hit snakes that may leap out from the undergrowth! (Taiwan inherited snakes from the Japanese occupation.)

Mr Chi'in Hsiao-I is the Director of the NPM, assisted by the Head of Paintings and the Head of Antiquities. The Secretary General serves as a link between the Curatorial Department (Collections) which includes Conservation, Exhibitions (which also embraces Education) and Administration. Curators of the collections are housed mainly in the new (1984) administration block, but in close proximity to the storage areas. Previously the objects were stored in rooms at the foot of the mountains behind the Museum, but now the new building provides 250,000 sq ft of storage space with custom-made boxes on open stacks for paintings and documents which allows easy access for research. The Antiquities Department does not have open stacks but, 'because of the island's location in an earthquake belt, packing the objects in boxes in the safest and most practical method of storage available at present'.3

The security system is sophisticated and cost approximately US$3 million. Pass gates are equipped with electronic card-readers and cards are only issued to higher grade specialists and then only for the rooms in which they have special responsibility. Activity within the storerooms is constantly monitored and recorded by all-weather 'infra-red and microwave scanners' and I noticed that the doors were sealed with a strip of paper which was signed and dated. Although I requested to see the storage in the Museum I was never granted permission so the information here is drawn from literature and discussion. I was asked many questions about our storage and the types of materials used in the packing of objects.

Fig 2. A scroll from the Yuan dynasty (13th-14th century) depicting Bodhisattva Samantabadhra (V&A Museum no. FE.51-1976)

Fig 2. A scroll from the Yuan dynasty (13th-14th century) depicting Bodhisattva Samantabadhra (V&A Museum no. FE.51-1976) (click image for larger version)

The Exhibition Department of the Museum is responsible for all exhibitions, gallery re-hangs, didactic material publications and information leaflets. The Replica Department (which is part of the Conservation Department) plays an important role in conjunction with the Exhibitions Department. In recent years there have been several traveling exhibitions, both in the Republic of China and abroad, featuring reproductions of the Museum's most important exhibits.

The Education Department is responsible for lectures, gallery tours and talks. There is a new extension providing facilities for 400 children on a daily basis to attend educational programmes. It also offers educational facilities for children of kindergarten age (3-5 years).

The Conservation Division has purpose-built studios for all of its three sections: Science, Objects Conservation and Replicas. The Science section works in collaboration with the University, where scientific research was being carried out on Sung Dynasty clays in conjunction with other museums in Taiwan. They are also researching the application of cinnabar on Chinese antiquities. An experimental paper-making station had been set up in co-operation with the Department of Forestry. Analysis of ancient papers provided information to produce papers of various fibre and finishes such as gampi, mulberry, bamboo, cotton, and flax. I attended a testing of these newly-manufactured papers at which a local artist was invited to demonstrate his skills and assess the papers for sizing, porosity and cockling. The Department of Forestry was also working for the manufacturing industry and testing papers to TAPPI Standards.

Objects Conservation is a small department. Here they restore ceramics, glass, ivory, bronze and lacquer, and were very pleased to demonstrate their recently acquired video-microscope. During my visit, the Conservation Department was preparing to mount an exhibition in a small town south west of Taipei.

The Replica Department occupied the largest workshop. Analysis carried out in the Science Department often assists in the reproduction of artefacts.

The Mounting Department (scroll and manuscripts) is situated next to the Paintings and Calligraphy Department and in close proximity to the relevant storage area in the administrative block, at subterranean level. It is part of the Curatorial Department, not the Conservation Division. It was here that I spent most of my stay, since the research was to further my knowledge of Chinese mounting techniques, especially those used in the mounting of paintings for the Yuan period (13th-14th century). In the field of conservation the traditional Chinese method for mounting works of art, in all its aspects, is an effective way of preserving delicate works of art on paper and silk.

The studio was very large - approximately 50'x30' - with an additional storage and office area. The Head of the studio was Mr Chin Ching-jeu (who had trained in northern China and Japan) and working with him were two senior members of staff and an apprentice. Communication was difficult and I was very grateful to Chang Hsian-weng who acted as translator.

It was extremely quiet; the phone rarely rang and the only noise was the squeak of apprentices' Reeboks on the linoleum floor. On entering the studio the first object that caught the eye was the enormous flat, red lacquered table known as the tan pan (30'x13') with a separate table (4'x15'). It has been recorded that lacquered tables were used in the ninth century and ruled with red lines to ensure straight and square cutting edges. The lines on the table were the same patterns as the ruled spaces of a Chinese manuscript.

The walls of the studio were clad in tongued and grooved pine. This served as a large flattening surface for the newly backed silks and brocade gsed in the mounting of scrolls and calligraphic works. There were, in addition, the more traditional chuang-pan (drying boards) constructed like Japanese karibari, and some, like the karibari, treated with persimon, others with tung oil. The application of tung oil or persimmon rendered them waterproof and made removal of flattened objects easier, and also slowed down the drying process. The chuang-pan came into use around 1400 because of the increased use of hanging scroll mountings. Mounts from the Sung and Yuan period were quite small and could be joined together on the table. From the Ming period onwards paintings became larger and materials thinner and more fragile, necessitating larger surfaces where scrolls could be left to dry safely for long periods.

A variety of papers were used in the studio, imported from China and Japan. There are several papermaking areas in Taiwan making bamboo papers and, more recently, paper made from 'mitsumata'. I was disappointed that the Science Division were not developing paper for use in the conservation of scroll paintings. The Department used thin mulberry papers such as 'usimino', and 'minogami', also Xuan paper '-lian-chi' '-mian-lian' (both bamboo and mulberry papers). Japanese papers have traditionally long fibres whereas Chinese papers have a short fibre length and are difficult to handle when wet or pasted.

The sheets are very large; the size of Chinese papers increased during the Ming period. It was with the increased dimensions of the hanging scroll that there was a greater tendency to use paper rather than silk as a painting support. Silk was much more diversified and differed according to the size of looms used in various locations, whereas paper sizes became standardised.

Excess moisture was removed not with blotting paper as we know it in the West, but with a thin, tough cotton paper which could be re-used many times over. This cotton paper was also used as a facing paper (where we would probably use a synthetic material). Mi Fu, a Sung painter, wrote that a lampwick, made from the dry stalk of a plant, was used for removing excess moisture and stains.3 Here at the NPM they used a tightly rolled cloth for blotting silk before pasting.

According to other ninth century writings the process has changed little. The damp painting would have been spread out on a sheet of oiled paper or silk. The chief mounter usually decided on the style of mounting after discussion with the curator of the collection.

Outside the Museum, I found life to be full of surprises. Taipei was a large sprawling city and difficult to get around - especially with my ignorance of the language. I accepted that if I took a bus I would usually arrive somewhere other than my intended destination; the street names looked confusingly similar - Chunshang, Chingan, Chuong Ching, Chang-Chun. I did manage however to visit the beautiful Central National Park area and the northern coastal area of the island. Taiwan's food was exquisite but on one occasion I was startled when live prawns started to leap out of a boiling pot and fly across the table. I was similarly startled on my arrival, to find a mattress-less bed over which lay a duvet filled with Peking ducks - not just the feathers! It was such occasions and many more that made my visit memorable and enjoyable.

I would like to thank all the people at the National Palace Museum who were so kind and generous to me during my stay, especially Chang Hsian-Weng and Mr Chin Ching-jeu.


1 Extract from an interview with Na Ching-Liang from Adventures of the Treasures, translated by Peter Everly, NPM Publication, 1988, pp 3-7
2 ibid
3 Van Gulik, R H, Chinese Pictorial Art, Instituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, Roma, 1958