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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 16:47 GMT
Taiwan's museum of treasures
By Caroline Gluck
BBC News, Taipei

Taiwan's National Palace Museum - which boasts some of the most important treasures collected by China's ancient emperors - reopens on Thursday after a three year, $21m renovation designed to make its buildings more relevant and user-friendly.

Undated photo of Taiwan's National Palace Museum
The treasures were moved to Taiwan during the civil war

There are more public areas, larger gallery spaces displaying items that are now chronologically arranged, a dramatic light-filled lobby, several new restaurants and a larger gift shop as well as digital displays.

The museum's collection has always been world class, but the renovations now place the museum itself on a world class footing.

"The Chinese collections housed at the National Palace Museum are unrivalled," according to director Lin Mun-lee, who said one of her top priorities was to make a connection between the museum and people.

"But the museum not only has a legacy, it also has a boundless future. Its future will definitely be closely tied to Taiwan and its people," she said.

Sensitive relations

The museum's collection traces its roots to 1933, as Japan prepared to invade China.

See some of the museum's treasures

China's Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek decided to move thousands of treasures originally kept inside Beijing's Forbidden City. They were carefully packed up and secretly transported across China to protect them.

And it was on Chiang's orders that more than 3,000 crates of treasures were eventually shipped to Taiwan, where the Nationalists fled to in the final months of the Chinese civil war in 1948 and 1949.

That historical legacy means some of the museum's changes have also proved controversial.

China's state-run media has criticised plans approved by Taiwan's cabinet to remove references to the Chinese provenance of artefacts in the museum's governing charter.

China says it is part of attempts by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's independence-leaning government to try to deny the island's historical roots to the mainland.

Lin Mun-lee flatly denied that claim, saying the 20-year-old charter needed an overhaul and historical references should play no part of its organisational structure.

She also denied suggestions that the museum was planning to remove labels explaining that many exhibits originally came from Beijing's Forbidden City, later renamed the Palace Museum.

The controversies show just how sensitive relations between the two rivals remain - even when it comes to art.

Even so, the museum in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, is a powerful magnet for Chinese tourists.

Those numbers are likely to surge later this year with an expected agreement on relaxing restrictions on visits by mainland tourists.

Rare view

The Taipei museum contains more than 650,000 objects - a collection so vast that less than 1% can be viewed at any one time.

But it carefully guards its treasures.

Original crates shipped from China
Our mission was to transport these 5,000-year-old Chinese relics and to safeguard them
Kao Ren-chun

Overseas loans are rare since the museum insists any host country must first pass immunity from judicial seizure laws - to prevent China from taking legal action to reclaim any of the works.

While visitors can only see a fraction of the treasures, the rest is kept in temperature controlled basement vaults.

But about a thousand more crates are kept in another area - off limits to all but a handful of museum staff - in one of two tunnels carved into the mountainside behind the museum, designed to protect the treasures if China ever attacked Taiwan.

We entered through three elaborately sealed and locked doors, accompanied by two security guards and five museum staff. On either side were black steel crates, all numbered and stacked on top of each other. One group of boxes were the original wooden crates used to ship the treasures from China.

Kao Ren-chun, now 84, helped transport the artefacts from China to Taiwan to prevent them falling into the hands of the communists.

"Our mission was to transport these 5,000-year-old Chinese relics and to safeguard them. We could not allow any loss or damage to the pieces. It was a very important job," he said.

Gao Yonglin
No matter where these things are kept, they are still promoting Chinese culture
Gao Yonglin
Chinese tourist

"Nobody thought about their own safety. There was just one goal and that was to move these objects which were so important for Chinese culture, and the world's."

Despite the drama of that time, Mr Kao did not hesitate when asked what he thought about calls by Beijing to have the artworks returned.

"You can put these pieces anywhere. The most important thing is that they can get shown to the public - and can spread this culture, to share it with the rest of the world, and let people know about Chinese arts and culture," he said.

A Chinese tourist visiting the museum gave almost exactly the same answer.

Gao Yonglin, from Henan province, said he was happy to see the treasures so well preserved.

"My view is different from the conservative attitude of people born in the 1940s and 1950s who still want these objects to be returned to China," he said.

"No matter where these things are kept, they are still promoting Chinese culture."


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