A Cultural Rebalancing Act— The National Palace Museum’s Southern Branch


2016 / February

Lee Hsiang-ting /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

The Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum combines a broad general focus on Asian art and culture—the first major national-level museum in Asia to do so—with a special emphasis on local Taiwanese culture. Eagerly awaited by the nation’s people, the museum finally opened its doors at the end of 2015. It is adding historical and cultural vitality to the Jianan Plain of Southern Taiwan.

With an overarching goal of balancing cultural resources between north and south and of stimulating tourism as well as cultural, educational, and economic development in central and southern Taiwan, the ROC Executive Yuan in 2004 mandated that a Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum be established in Chiayi County’s Taibao City, with a general focus on Asian art and culture.

The construction of the Southern Branch did not all go smoothly. Contractual disputes held up construction for several years. And when Typhoon Morakot struck before protective infrastructure had been built around the museum, the site was completely flooded.

One of the i-Taiwan 12

After Ma Ying-jeou was elected as ROC president, the Southern Branch was listed among the “i-Taiwan 12 Infrastructure Projects,” and the plan underwent a general review. After revisions were completed in 2010, construction was recommenced.

Occupying 70 hectares in all, the Southern Branch is four times as large as the museum up north. Originally, the site had been owned by Taiwan Sugar Corporation. It was covered with sugar cane fields and lacked even the narrowest of roads. Thanks to the work of the ­Chiayi County Government, two intersecting roads were built and surrounding electric lines were placed underground to make way for the museum. The county even arranged for it to have the auspicious street address of 888 Gu­gong Boulevard. These actions were clear demonstrations of the local government’s enthusiasm for the project.

An international competition to design the building was won by Kris Yao of Artech. Yao’s buildings are always imbued with a certain Asian tranquility. They convey a sense of structural solidity and possess sleek exteriors. He is one of Taiwan’s few architects that are well regarded internationally for their work in modern Western architectural design.

Yao is well known in the industry for being extremely particular about construction quality, and his designs have always been noted for the difficulty of their construction. Consequently, three rounds of bidding on construction of the project had to be held before Lee Ming Construction finally won the contract.

A year on foundation engineering

On February 6, 2013 ground was broken on construction of the main museum building. Unexpectedly, just preparing the foundation and other grading work took a year. By that point there were not even 1000 days remaining before the target date for the museum’s opening in late 2015. It was all quite rushed.

The site was low lying and subject to flooding after heavy rains. To fend off the threat of floods, it was necessary to elevate the museum’s foundation.

The construction company thus created two reservoirs, digging up soil from 14 hectares of land in the process; this soil was used to raise the museum’s foundation. Afterwards, engineers injected sand deep under the site, creating more than 5700 highly compacted sand piles, before inserting 580 prestressed concrete foundation piles. Only then was the site stable enough for construction of the museum to start.

Diamond-level certification

Although the main museum building only has four floors, the construction process still presented difficulties because the height of the building is typical of a high-rise of ten or more floors. The construction team deserves much of the credit for the building’s stable foundation today.

Taiwan is prone to earthquakes, and the builders had to consider them. Tai­bao is only 18 kilometers from the Mei­shan Fault. Consequently, the engineers designed 210 base isolation units in five different configurations in order to bolster the building’s seismic structural integrity. The system, purchased in Europe, was then sent to San Diego for testing. These elements are visible to museum visitors and thus also serve an educational purpose.

The Southern Branch’s building, which has attained diamond-level Taiwan Green Building certification, features solar and wind power facilities. Meanwhile, it has also attained gold-level certification as a “smart building” and is applying for diamond-level certification in that regard also.

A beautiful bridge

Before entering the main building, it is first necessary to cross the Zhi­mei (“utmost beauty”) Bridge from the southern end of the manmade lake. To prevent damage to the waterproofing at the bottom of the lake, rather than using piers, the bridge features a 141-meter single-span arch.

To echo the architectural themes of the main building, the bridge is designed to suggest the idea of cursive script calligraphy. As one walks along it, the sparkling surface of the water calms one’s spirits and draws one toward the exhibition areas. It’s a charming experience that lingers in memory.

At the end of the Zhi­mei Bridge is the circular Long­ma­xiang (“dragon–horse–elephant”) Plaza. There visitors can either walk into the museum’s courtyard or enter the museum’s lobby on the right. As you pass through the lobby and ascend to the next level, you immediately sense the architectural tension created by the staggered positioning of massive geometric forms. At this point you come to one of the features of the museum that caused the greatest challenges during construction. To understand the difficulty involved, you need to look first at the architectural design.

A poetic exchange

For conceptual inspiration, the design of the Southern Branch borrowed from three techniques found in traditional Chinese ink-wash painting: ­nongmo (“dense black” or the thick application of ink), fei­bai (“flying white” or streaks of white that appear in brushstrokes where the ink did not take), and xuan­ran (application of watery ink or color, producing a hazy effect). The main building’s East Wing is the Fei­bai Hall, a public space in the museum that features low-emissivity blue-gray glass curtain walls that allow in natural light and offer views of the manmade lake outside and the Jia­nan Plain beyond. It is also a good place to view the works of public art found in various corners of the museum grounds.

The West Wing’s Mo­yun Hall conveys a sense of “solid form” through its architecture. Its four floors house exhibition spaces and six collection storerooms, each of which was designed to meet the museum’s needs. Moreover, because it lacks large windows in its outer walls, it appears completely sealed. In fact, although they are invisible to the human eye, there are 89 small cylindrical windows of painted glass that let in light to the exhibition corridors, which seem as if illuminated by stardust. Yao compares this design element to the Lo Shu Square, an ancient Chinese cosmological diagram that was, according to legend, created by a river god.

This wing, built of reinforced concrete, demonstrates “solid form” and features an outer wall covered with mosaic tiles and studded with 35,861 aluminum disks of five different sizes. Reminiscent of bronze artifacts, these convey a sturdy and grounded sense of calm. From a distance they suggest the image of a dragon, its scales aglitter, half hidden among the clouds, seemingly in motion as the angle of the sun changes. It’s a very contemporary design.

The Southern Branch’s architecture is like an exquisite giant work of sculpture. Altogether it required more than 6000 metric tons of steel, which had to be cut to a wide variety of sizes in order for the building to attain an undulating line suggestive of rolling clouds or flowing water. And the “void form” of the East Wing required more than 8000 glass curtain wall panels, which were likewise cut to various unique dimensions. To get the glass to fit properly on the steel frame, the builders were constantly making slight adjustments. The process was unimaginably painstaking.

The hardest part of all was where the “solid form” and “void form” wings intersect at the southern side of the building. Every detail had to be meticulously measured so the two wings could be fitted together precisely. Fortunately, thanks to the construction firm’s hard work, it came together perfectly.

Between the two wings there is a courtyard and sloping entry walkway inspired by the xuanran (“diffusion of ink or color”) method in traditional Chinese ink-wash painting. In this space one can see the museum’s two wings to the right and to the left. Straight ahead are 12 works of public art depicting the heads of the animals of the Chinese ­zodiac.

Architect Kris Yao has described how walking through the Southern Branch should be like unrolling a classical Chinese scroll painting. You must slowly unroll sections of the scroll and unhurriedly enjoy the process. Entering the exhibition halls of the Southern Branch truly gives people a new appreciation for the virtues of unhurried enjoyment.

Grand and stately exhibition halls

The display cases, on a scale that is difficult to imagine, meet international standards. The ones used to exhibit textiles and Buddhist artifacts, for instance, have a height of 7.2 meters, and long scrolls can be completely unfurled within them. The longest display case, at 20 meters, is found in the ceramics hall.

One special feature of the museum is that it contains additional space to exhibit installation art related to exhibition themes. For instance, for “The Far-Reaching Fragrance of Tea: The Art and Culture of Tea in Asia,” the curators designed a Ming-Dynasty-style teahouse to give visitors a sense of the atmosphere surrounding how the ancients drank tea. And “Sailing the High Seas: ­Imari Porcelain Wares,” a special exhibition of works on loan to the museum, features a reproduction of a boat in which Japanese emissaries sailed to Tang-Dynasty China.

As for the Jadeite Cabbage, that much-loved national treasure, the museum has installed a special round case for it that will allow visitors to enjoy views of it from all sides. Moreover, the Meat-Shaped Stone will come down south in October. The museum staff are working hard to provide delightful surprises in every corner of every exhibition.

The Southern Branch has five galleries for permanent exhibitions, as well as a single gallery each for special exhibitions, multimedia exhibitions and exhibitions of loaned works. Museum curatorial staff, including many who had already retired, were fully mobilized and brought down south. Ten teams, comprising domestic and foreign experts, reviewed the museum’s holdings to find works for permanent exhibitions and also considered potential multimedia exhibits and shows of loaned works from abroad. Altogether, ten exhibitions were planned for the museum’s opening, including five permanent exhibitions, three special exhibitions, and two exhibitions of loaned works.

A pair of stars, north and south

The 50-hectare grounds are only sparsely planted due to the ecological engineering methods employed. The plants will require some time before they can mature and flourish. It’s expected that this year’s spring rains will lead to wider expanses of green.

Work on the “Grand National Palace Museum Expansion Plan” began in 2010. The plan calls for expansion of the northern museum and construction of a new arts and performance area there, as well the establishment of the new Southern Branch with its focus on Asian art and culture, thus creating a pair of cultural stars in Taiwan, shining north and south.

Museums are places where people can come into contact with the essence of culture. The National Palace Museum was recognized this year as one of the world’s ten most visited museums by The Art Newspaper of London. Ranked No. 7, it was the only Asian museum on the list.

With the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum now shining brightly on the Jia­nan Plain, another brilliant cultural portal has been opened that will give the world a glimpse of China’s cultural legacy and of the great heights its people have reached over thousands of years of history. May the branch provide ever more people with a cultural feast distinct from that of National Palace Museum in northern Taiwan.           


Current Exhibitions_

Permanent exhibitions:

Imprints of Buddha: The Buddhist Art in the National Palace Museum Collection

Boldness of Forms and Colors: Asian Textiles in the National Palace Museum Collection

The Far-Reaching Fragrance of Tea: The Art and Culture of Tea in Asia

The Flow of Time: A Brief History of Chiayi

Multimedia Gallery Guide: Understanding Asian Art

Temporary exhibitions:

The Aesthetics of Diversity:

South Asian Costumes in the National Palace Museum Collection

Treasures from Across the Kunlun Mountains: Islamic Jades in the NPM Collection

Radiating Hues of Blue and White:

Ming Dynasty Blue-and-White Porcelains in the NPM Collection

Exhibitions of loaned artifacts:

The Enduring Beauty of Celadon: A Special Exhibition of Goryeo Celadons

Sailing the High Seas: Imari Porcelain Wares

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