National Palace Museum (NPM) has once again found itself at the center of a prolonged and intense debate over the central government’s organizational reform plan, under which the NPM, currently a second-tier agency of the Executive Yuan, is slated to be redesignated as a third-tier agency of the Ministry of Culture. Despite the Ministry’s defense of the move, opposition mounted, particularly against the “downgrade” of the NPM as well as the rumored proposal of renaming the NPM. At the core of the criticism are concerned that the administrative rearrangement of the NPM has been politicized and potentially used as a tool to pursue de-sinicization.
But such an issue has always been political, and always will be. The very existence of the NPM comes inherently with some form of a narrative of national history and political identity. This holds true today, in an age where museology has expanded the contemporary understanding of and approach to the way governments around the world archive and promote certain knowledge systems. It would therefore be more aptly put that Taiwan society should steer clear of a dichotomous partisan view (e.g. pro-independence vs. pro-unification) on the administrative status of the NPM, instead of casting the issue as simply politicized – a fallacy for which both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) have fallen.
On the one hand, a double standard exists among advocates of Taiwanese independence, including the DPP, who in general reject Chinese historical treasures as the dominant representation of the national history while also looking to the British Museum as a prime example of a museum “for all mankind,” thereby their schizophrenic position that the treasures in the NPM are “national treasures” as well.
Members of the KMT leadership and their supporters, on the other hand, subscribe to the party-state mindset – which still very much exists today – that treasures of the NPM, along with the gold reserves in Xindian, are the KMT’s assets because they were transported to the island across the Taiwan Strait against all odds by the Chiang Kai-shek’s regime decades ago.
The KMT Regime Downplayed History
Two historical facts of the 1920s, long downplayed by the KMT regime, deserve attention when we trace the history of the National Palace Museum.
Following the Beijing Coup in 1924 launched by the warlord Feng Yuxiang, in which Feng imprisoned Republic of China (ROC) president Cao Kun and expelled the last emperor Aisin Gioro Puyi from the Forbidden City, amendments were made to the Articles of Favorable Treatment of the Qing Emperor to revoke the title of dignity reserved for the emperor, and to make public property of the Qing monarch the property of the ROC government. With the latter move came the Committee for the Disposition of the Qing Imperial Possessions and the Provisional Articles on the Establishment of the Palace Museum, under which a board of directors and a subordinate board of executive directors were set up respectively as the supervisory and managerial bodies.
In 1928, as the Northern Expedition launched by the KMT National Revolutionary Army concluded and China reunified, the Committee of the National Government of the ROC adopted a resolution by an overwhelming majority to abolish the Palace Museum and to set up a committee to auction off the “illicit property” of the Qing imperial court, which the Committee rejected as a feudal legacy. The Committee, then the highest-level decision-making body of the ROC government, also signaled a fresh start by proposing the setting up of a Central Museum in Nanking.
However, these two historical facts have long been “forgotten” by the KMT regime (and perhaps understandably so), under whose rule Taiwan underwent a 38-year-long Martial Law period from 1949 to 1987. The “official” history of the National Palace Museum in the early days seems to only date back to 1934, when the NPM was considered formally established as it was placed under the control of the Executive Yuan of the ROC.
The Central Museum That Never Existed
Another forgotten fact was that the setting up of the Preparatory Office of the Central Museum by the Ministry of Education in 1933. That year, a committee composed of prominent intellectuals, including Weng Wen-hao, Fu Ssu-nien, Chang Tao-fan, Ding Wen-jiang, and Liang Si-cheng, facilitated the transfer of the property rights over the NPM treasures to the proposed Humanity Hall of the Central Museum, a move which made possible the “official” setting up of the NPM in 1934, as well as the decision to establish a branch at the Chaotian Palace in Nanking. In other words, from an administrative perspective, it was the Preparatory Office of the Central Museum that enabled such developments. This is also why we still see the mention of the “Preparatory Office of the Central Museum” in Article I of the National Palace Museum Organization Act today, which was promulgated in 2008.
In addition, the National Museum of History (NMH), formerly known as the National Museum of Historical Artifacts and Fine Arts (NMHAFA) and the first of its kind to be established in Taiwan by the ROC government, was also placed under the administrative control of the (nonexistent) Central Museum. In 1956, the Ministry of Education incorporated into one of the first collections of the NMHAFA the treasures returned by the Japanese government, alongside select artifacts of the Henan Museum. In the following year, Chiang Kai-shek instructed that the NMHAFA be renamed, hence the NMH today. Despite the name change, however, identity issues have lingered for over half a century, as museums in Taiwan continue to grapple with where they came from and where they are going.
There are two points to make here. First, the “official” histories of museums in Taiwan seem to have always downplayed, even ignored, any mention of the early museum policy associated with warlord Feng Yu-hsiang. Second, the administrative status of the NMH – first as a subordinate of the Ministry of Education before being redesignated under the Ministry of Culture – has everything to do with the (limited) size of its collections and exhibition space, and nothing to do with the comparison with the NPM, in terms of seniority. Ultimately, it comes down to the lack of a museum policy on the national level that is based on professionalism and adaptability to changing times.
NPM Director Susceptible to Changing Politics
As the NPM operates as a second-tier agency of the Executive Yuan, whose director is nominated by the premier before being appointed by the president, he or she has to resign alongside the premier and ministers before the first session of each new Legislative Yuan, to which to premier is politically accountable. Such spirit was made clear in Judicial Yuan Constitutional Interpretation No. 387 in 1995. In other words, current political institutions render the office of the NPM director susceptible to changing politics – more so than the agencies under ministries.
It’s fair to say that at the crux of the debate on the administrative status of the NPM lies, ultimately, a genuine call for the maintenance of professional autonomy of museology, irrespective of changing politics.
How about an NPM under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?
Following the Declaration of Principles of International Cultural Co-operation in 1966, UNESCO adopted in 1970 the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The treaty reaffirms the importance of cultural property and the moral responsibility of countries around the world to respect cultural property. The treaty also notes the role of cultural institutions in protecting and maintaining the cultural property, and how any illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership would constitute an obstacle to the mutual understanding between nations.
Against the backdrop, it is more evidently clear than ever that the understanding of and debate on the NPM, in all its historical dimensions going back to the founding of the ROC, should be encouraged and embraced, in order to appreciate why it is the way it is today, and more importantly, where it is going in the future. Otherwise, we will never break free from the outdated, post-WWII mentality where the NPM served prominently as an instrument for the Chinese Culture Restoration Movement.
As the world reflects on history in the post-colonial era, calls have emerged for museums to return artifacts to their original countries, despite the principle of non-retroactivity laid out in the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Ultimately, we need to think hard about what a museum should stand for: is it merely an archive of cultural and historical assets, or can it also serve as a window of opportunity for mutual understanding and reconciliation?
If the latter holds true, there is probably more possibility than designating the NPM under the Ministry of Culture. With a commitment to peace and cultural promotion, why not consider designating the NPM under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, too?