August 11, 2010

Taiwan’s hopes to secure the return of artefacts from the British Museum

Posted at 1:02 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

If Taiwan wants to make more of their own aboriginal culture, they need to secure the return of many important artefacts from this era that are in other museums around the world.

Taipei Times

Taiwan needs a national Aboriginal museum
By Lu Meifen 盧梅芬
Monday, May 17, 2010, Page 8

If Taiwan is a culturally diverse country, then how is that reflected in our museums? The National Palace Museum in Taipei remains the main portal for those who want to learn about Chinese culture in Taiwan. The only Taiwanese museum dedicated specifically to Aboriginal culture is the Cultural Park Bureau of the Cabinet’s Council of Indigenous Peoples. Its status is uncertain, it lacks research experts and its permanent exhibitions are not being updated. In other words, it falls far short of the standard we have a right to expect from a national museum of Aborigines.

Aside from the National Palace Museum, the highest-ranking national museums in Taiwan are the National Museum of History in Taipei, the National Museum of Natural Science in Taichung, the National Science and Technology Museum in Kaohsiung, the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Pingtung and the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung. The Museum of Prehistory is the highest-ranking museum in Taiwan dedicated to prehistoric research, Aborigines and the ­connection between prehistory, Aborigines and Austronesia. Although it is charged with promoting balanced cultural development in eastern Taiwan and in the nation’s remote regions, the Museum of Prehistory has the smallest staff, even though Aborigines make up a majority of residents in those areas.

Of these museums, all of which are categorized as level-three museums, the Museum of Prehistory is the only one at risk of being demoted to level four. That would place it on the same level as national museums under the Council of Cultural Affairs, former provincial museums and national living art museums that began life as social education centers.

Following the elevation of provincial museums and social education centers to national level institutions, the division of national, provincial, county, city and township institutions is increasingly muddled. Demoting the Museum of Prehistory to a lower level would make it less attractive to curators and research experts, resulting in fewer resources and expert staff. It would also diminish Aboriginal cultural rights and limit the educational rights of people living in remote areas. Taiwan would not have much of a national museum for indigenous peoples to show the world.

In 1989, the US Congress passed legislation establishing a National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) under the Smithsonian Institution. The bill also required that the Smithsonian inventory all indigenous cultural artifacts and human remains in all its museum collections, and determine when those remains could be returned, together with a plan for doing so. The law has been described as the result of a successful strategy by the Red Power Movement. Fifteen years later, in 2004, the NMAI, located at the National Mall in Washington, became a symbol of indigenous identity.

In 1992, New Zealand’s legislature passed the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act, the bill that established New ­Zealand’s national museum — te papa tongarewa is Maori for “container of treasures.” The museum was established in the nation’s capital, Wellington, to highlight the cultural diversity of New Zealand and symbolize partnership between the Maori and the country’s European descendants. In 1995, the museum adopted a dual leadership system with a chief executive officer and a kaihautu — Maori leader — jointly leading the museum. In 2003, the museum initiated a plan for the return of Maori cultural objects currently overseas, to be implemented through official channels and between national museums. The plan included the pursuit of Maori cultural relics at the British Museum.

Given that Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are the perfect representatives of Taiwanese identity and unique local color in the international arena, it is perhaps surprising that there is no consensus on the need to maintain a national museum dedicated to them.

The fact that museums are currently researching, compiling and reconstructing the vast traditional cultural assets of Taiwan’s ­Aborigines means that they have become important institutions through which Aborigines can fight for their cultural rights.

These collections make up the core of the museums and they are also the roots that hold the culture of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples in place.

However, Taiwan’s Aborigines lack the experience of mainstream society in dealing with museums. In this respect, they are more like first generation immigrants as they get involved in what to them is the strange new world of museum management. We still need to train Aboriginal museum staff, even if we have yet to work out how to use museums as a cultural tool and their relationship to cultural rights. In this context it is concerning that just as indigenous peoples are developing the skills and abilities needed to run Aboriginal museums, they are being increasingly marginalized by mainstream society.

Lu Meifen is assistant curator in the exhibition and education division at the National Museum of Prehistory.


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