The History of Our Natural History

“Discovering Taiwan” at the National Taiwan Museum

2018 / February

Chen Chun-fang /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Bruce Humes

In November 2017, the National Taiwan Museum launched a new permanent exhibition: “Discovering Taiwan—Revisiting the Age of Natural History and Naturalists of Taiwan.” This marks the first time that exhibits from diverse fields of study, ranging from the Formosan landlocked salmon to Mona Rudao’s anklets, have appeared together. Featuring a rich selection of items personally collected by 19th- and 20th-century naturalists, the show highlights the variegated and precious collections amassed by the NTM over the past century, allowing visitors to see with their own eyes the world’s discovery of species and artifacts native to Taiwan.

If the late director Chi Po-lin’s documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above offered an expansive, bird’s-eye view, then the NTM’s “Discovering Taiwan” illustrates in a concrete manner—on a smaller scale—the diversity of local species and culture via assorted specimens and handcrafted items.

Decoding the natural sciences

Thanks to improved navigation techniques and the drive for territorial expansion during the 19th century, people of many nations set foot in alien lands for exploration and discovery. In the midst of this wave, Taiwan attracted its share of overseas experts and scholars.

Motivated by their curiosity about the native flora and fauna, sailors, doctors, explorers, diplomats and others came to Taiwan by boat. They traversed Taiwan on foot, exploring every nook and cranny, employing a variety of methods to record in minute detail their findings along the way. Regardless of their professions, this group were collectively referred to as “naturalists” or “natural historians,” and the specimens they gathered became precious museum items.

Taiwan’s first museum—the Taiwan Viceroy’s Office Museum—was founded in 1908 during the Japanese colonial era. Naturalists discovered that they now had a stage for public display of their contributions.

The museum moved to its present location, not far from the Taipei Railway Station, in 1915, and acquired its present name, the National Taiwan Museum, in 1999. While it occupies a small area, the NTM has a long history and spans knowledge in the fields of anthropology, zoology, geoscience and botany. Exploiting the advantages offered by its rich and diverse collection, the museum aims to attract the public to visit again and again. It is in this spirit that the cross-disciplinary permanent exhibition “Discovering Taiwan” was born.

Responsible for overall integration of the project is Li Tzu-ning, Associate Researcher of the NTM’s Research Department. He seeks to transcend the orthodox narrative technique that natural science scholars employ to convey knowledge, in favor of a humanistic approach. “For natural science researchers, a specimen is an object that represents a species.” For Li, however, an item in the museum’s collection is not merely a specimen; it is also a historical artifact laden with its own context in a given time and location. It is time to break with tradition: rather than speaking of what a specimen represents in terms of a species, we should tell the story of its history and culture to enable the public to perceive the item’s rich backstory from a totally fresh perspective.

Meticulous collectors

Li Tzu-ning says “Discovering Taiwan” is intended to illustrate how these naturalists gathered knowledge in an orderly fashion, and given their discovery of many new species, to astonish the world with this small island’s diversity.

The large creature located at the front of the exhibition hall serves as a fitting opening: a Formosan sambar deer, one of the earliest Taiwanese mammals known to Western science. One was collected in 1862 by the British naturalist Robert Swinhoe (1836-1877), who was the British consul in Formosa. In the same year, he published “On the Mammals of the Island of Formosa” in the Proceedings of the Zoolo­gical Society of London, marking the first time mammals in Taiwan, such as the Formosan clouded leopard and Formosan macaque, were systematically described.

Following in Swinhoe’s pioneering footsteps, other naturalists thereafter made outstanding contributions in their individual specialist fields.   

Yonetaro Ki­ku­chi (1869-1921), who specialized in the collection and taxidermy of animal specimens, won acclaim for capturing the world’s first complete specimen of a male Mi­kado pheasant. Many species endemic to Taiwan were discovered by him, such as the Taiwan vole (Microtus kikuchii) and the Taiwan mountain pitviper (Trimeresurus gracilis). Many of the NTM’s extant mounted animal specimens, including a pair of male and female Mikado pheasants displayed in the exhibition, were prepared by his skilled hands.

Zoologist Chen Jian-shan (1898-1988), who took over as the museum’s director in 1945, and his student ­Liang Run-­sheng (1914-2002), used their expertise in ichthyology to make many contributions to the museum’s fish collection. Many are rare species or subspecies, such as the Formosan landlocked salmon (Oncorhynchus masou formosanus) and the Formosan ayu (Plecoglossus altivelis altivelis). Now extinct, the Formosan ayu can only be seen via the specimens collected by Chen.

A pioneer of anthropological fieldwork, Ushi­no­suke Mori (1827-1926) trekked throughout the mountains of Taiwan and visited numerous tribal communities. In addition to collecting Aboriginal artifacts, he used a camera in his fieldwork during an era when photography was very costly. He took pictures of many indigenous people, capturing images of religious activities, different social classes, attire, handicrafts and totems, in which visitors to the exhibition can catch a glimpse of Aboriginal figures and lifestyles from a century ago.

Experts and the public mingle

The exhibits in “Discovering Taiwan” are not rigidly arranged on the walls, nor are they enclosed inside barriers designed to keep the spectator at a distance. Some items on display in the exhibition are on stands, some are erected on the ground, and others are displayed vividly suspended in mid-air. A large swathe of the exhibition space is devoted to a patchwork-like display of specimens such as Mikado pheasants, Formosan black bear and pangolin, which seem as if they were calling out to one another in conversation. The lifelike specimens are so close to the visitor that they appear on the verge of jumping out from their glass cases to greet you.

Aside from going deep into the wilds to gather specimens, many naturalists also converted their observations into the written word, and those writings enable us today to see our forebears’ footprints. Sometimes those records, preserved through time, provide powerful evidence of an item’s original value. For example, during a 2015 inventory of the museum’s collection, a pair of shell-bead anklets purchased from Atayal tribespeople for two Japanese yen in 1929 was compared against the owner’s inventory of purchased items, recorded in Japanese ka­ta­kana. It was discovered that the anklets had belonged to Mona Ru­dao (1880-1930), the See­diq tribal chief immortalized in the film See­diq Bale (2011). This is the first time that these accessories, which symbolized the noble status held by the brave warrior, have been displayed with the attribution of having belonged to Mona Rudao.

Some of these naturalists could not only write, they were gifted artists too. Ta­kiya Ka­wa­kami (1871-1915) drew and painted by hand the flora he collected, and his flowering plant illustrations still seem like works of art. The drawings made by anthropologist Chen Chi-lu (1923-2014) feature vivid depictions of Aboriginal artifacts. Various totems of the Paiwan people, carved on their wooden combs, were meticulously recreated by him on paper.

The written records and publications of these naturalists are presented in the exhibition alongside their specimens, enabling us to appreciate the professional spirit behind their pursuit of knowledge. Generally speaking, exhibits in the NTM are introduced by long text-based narratives, but in “Discovering Taiwan” these have been replaced by easy-to-grasp images, making the exhibition more accessible. Whether they are specialist researchers, young children or senior citizens, each visitor can draw their own enjoyment from the displays.

Glimpsing the future from the past

Only when the past is understood can we look into the future. Perhaps the best footnote elucidating this is Atayal textile artist Yuma Taru’s New Texture of Ancestor’s Rainbow Bridge, displayed on a wall at the back of the exhibition. She has taken various Atayal patterns and shaped them into individual triangles. Her successful recreations of traditional patterned textiles are wrapped around triangular blocks of acrylic, while patterns still in the process of revival are printed onto the blocks, which are pieced together in a collage to symbolize the Rainbow Bridge that deceased tribe members must cross to be reunited with the spirits of the ancestors.

In this exhibition, the public can explore the fate of the now-extinct Formosan clouded leopard. This precious exhibit not only retains its genetic code for future generations, it also serves to remind us that a once living species has vanished, due to damage wrought by humans upon it and its habitat.

Among the NTM’s 110,000-strong collection, only 300-plus pieces were selected for “Discovering Taiwan.” As the exhibition proceeds, from time to time the museum will replenish the items on view. In addition to allowing the exhibits to “rest,” it is also hoped this will entice the public to visit again. At first glance this is an exhibition that requires a profound foundation of knowledge. But the NTM actually intends to convey the curiosity those who came before us felt about the natural world, and their efforts to explore it.

“Discovering Taiwan” not only displays the historic concepts upon which the NTM is founded; it also embodies the wholehearted zeal of the naturalists. Let’s follow in the footsteps of our predecessors, rekindle our curiosity in the living world around us, and come to the museum for a journey of discovery of Taiwan!         

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