Sunday, July 26, 2009

The paradigms of Taipei museums

One of the more interesting parts of our visit to Taipei has been seeing the way in which history is handled here. Taipei (and all of Taiwan) have pride in their identity and their history, and many of the city's landmarks are historical in nature. We have visited four different museums, all of which emphasize different elements of Taiwan's history. The National Palace Museum is not Taiwanese, per se, as it houses artifacts from China's history that were brought over when the nationalists fled when the communists took over China after WWII. It's quite something to be in the presence of artifacts that are up to 7,000 years old and to see a nation's history like that. It is a matter of pride for the Taiwanese that they have many of the dearest treasures of Chinese culture, and the museum attracts many visitors from the mainland who want to see these parts of their history. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall commemorates the life of the father of the Republic of China, a political and diplomatic figure who travelled the world and helped directly contribute to the overturning of the dynastic system and the establishment of the republic in 1911 (meaning that many Taiwanese still write the year as 98, since it is 98 years since the republic was established). Dr. Sun's hall is very deliberately couched with intellectual language, and attempts to place him in an upper echelon of thinkers (ie French, German, American philosophers during times of revolution). Then, in what is perhaps the most telling juxtaposition of museums, there are the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and 2-28 Peace Park and Museum. CKS was the military leader of the nationalist party on the mainland, and was the leader of the nationalist party when Mao Tse-Tung and the communists took over Taiwan. He was recognized by many countries for his efforts in China in WWII, and in establishing Taiwan as the Republic of China afterward (Taiwan actually represented China in the UN until 1971). What is really interesting is the way in which language is (ab)used in his hall, and the images that are used. The words are very decisive and clearly indicate a belief in the inherent goodness of CKS' actions, and they are patriotic in a way that might embarrass even staunch Republicans. There are pictures of CKS with many world leaders - Gandhi, Eisenhower, LBJ, Truman - and he is presented in a very positive light. What is very interesting is that, in recent years, the public opinion of CKS has plummeted with the revelation of his disregard for many people and some of his actions, which were not respectful of human rights. So though the language still lionizes him, the public perception is not the same. That museum is geographically very close to the 2-28 Museum, which was built in 1987 to inform Taiwanese about a rebellion that occurred in 1947 against the nationalist party from the mainland. Over 20,000 Taiwanese were supposedly killed in the uprisings, which included many senseless killings from the nationalist forces - the party of CKS. This history was only recently acknowledged because Taiwan was under martial law for 40 years, and it was forbidden to speak of the events by the nationalist government (see why CKS has fallen out of favour?). It has been very interesting to see how each of these museums has brought their perspective forward, and how they are all used to uphold patriotism in Taiwan, despite four very different ideological paradigms. Now what will be really interesting is when I get to compare these museums to museums on the mainland someday...that will be an exercise in deconstructing propaganda and deciphering truth if ever there was one.

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