Industrialist Shi Wen-long shares his eclectic and fascinating collection of art and artifacts through his private museum.
If an exhibition center wants to be taken seriously – yet displays a stuffed polar bear across the corridor from medieval Indian weaponry, while oil paintings by the likes of Anthony van Dyck share the upper floor with jukeboxes – it had better state its mission clearly.
Chimei Museum (www.chimeimuseum.org), which reopened in a purpose-built landmark building at the start of 2015, does all of these things.
Since the early 1990s, bentuhua (本土化, “localization”) has been a powerful force in Taiwan’s cultural sphere. The National Museum of Taiwan History, 14 kilometers from Chimei Museum in another part of Tainan, is the finest expression of this trend. But despite being founded by a man who served as a senior presidential advisor to Chen Shui-bian, Chimei Museum tacks in an utterly different direction.
Shi Wen-long (許文龍), the tycoon behind the museum, was born in 1928. He founded what is now the Chi Mei Group in 1960. In addition to manufacturing acrylics, resins, and consumer electronics, the group operates three hospitals.
Shi has been passionate about museums since his youth. He was fortunate enough to attend an elementary school near one, and recalls in the preface to the book Highlights of the Chimei Collection: “For a child, free admission to a museum full of wonderful treasures was so fascinating that I spent most of my time after school there. This museum not only gave me vivid childhood memories, but also inspired me to later build a museum for the public. The founding essence of the museum has always been ‘to promote music comprehensible to the common ears, and to collect paintings beautiful to the common eyes.’”
The young Shi also fell in love with the sound of the violin. Because his family was unable to afford an instrument, he fashioned his own, taught himself to play, and eventually became a talented musician.
“Chimei Museum aims through its collection to demonstrate art history and the lineage of violin luthiers. Our current acquisition policy focuses on completing the mapping of these historical puzzles,” says Patricia Liao, the museum’s deputy director.
“Mr. Shi’s dream is to start a cultural renaissance in Tainan. He has selected artworks which Taiwan residents would otherwise have to spend an enormous amount of time and money to view in person. This is why his collection is mostly Western works of art. Our job is to help him choose works that enhance the museum’s educational functions,” Liao explains.
The museum holds approximately 12,000 items. By comparison, Taipei’s National Palace Museum (NPM) has close to 700,000.
Despite having a brand-new, specially designed building, Chimei Museum shares one problem with the NPM: Not enough space to put everything it owns on display. “We currently exhibit a third of our total collection. Because we lack exhibition space, we plan to change half of the permanent exhibition items every four to five years,” says Liao.
Asked to estimate the total financial value of the museum’s collection, Liao responds: “It’s very difficult to give a total. As a museum, we prefer to educate the public, and not put a monetary value on art. We hope that, once an item enters our museum, the economic value of the artwork is transformed into educational value.”
Many visitors start with the Natural History and Fossils section, a permanent exhibition on the first floor. According to Liao, this gallery is one of the museum’s most popular. The range of preserved, mounted animals is certainly impressive. This is where the museum’s famous polar bear can be seen, along with Formosan Black Bears, elephants, zebras, deer, and more unusual creatures like the Slow Loris. Many species are represented by an adult male, an adult female, and juveniles.
One creature everyone should make a point of seeing while here is the Formosan Clouded Leopard. This unique-to-Taiwan subspecies is thought to have become extinct in the 1980s.
Visitors depending on English labeling will appreciate the fact that for every specimen the common name is given, rather than the scientific name (as is the norm in local botanical gardens). However, very little English appears on the gallery’s touchscreens.
Also of interest to nature-lovers exploring the first floor are two narrow galleries filled with stuffed birds. The raptors are striking, but unfortunately nothing in English or Chinese hints that several of the species displayed here – notably the Black-winged Stilt, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, and Black-faced Spoonbill – can be seen in Greater Tainan.
That shortcoming aside, the best adjective to describe the other major feature of the first floor is “remarkable.” The Arms and Armor exhibition has items from almost every part of Asia and Europe. One of the most advanced examples of military technology here is a repeating crossbow from China. It could fire up to three bolts at a time, and up to 30 bolts before needing a reload.
Some of the bronze daggers in this section were forged 3,000 years ago during the Zhou Dynasty. The most modern exhibits, seven machetes made by Taiwanese indigenous people between the 1940s and 1970s, seem to be the only examples of local material culture displayed in any part of Chimei Museum. No matter: Taiwan has other museums devoted to the artistic and cultural achievements of the various ethnic groups who live here.
Nowhere else, however, will you see anything remotely like the Milton Shield, or the late 17th-century equine suit of armor from the Mughal Empire. The former is an example of British metalwork from around 1870. Engraved with scenes inspired by John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, it is fit for a monarch. The latter is believed to be one of the two most complete sets in existence; the other is in a private collection, unavailable for public viewing.
The finely sculptured kris (asymmetrical dagger) handles from Indonesia, made of wood, bone, and ivory, look more like chess pieces than weapon components. Equally eye-catching is the leather and lacquered-wood armor once worn by a samurai, and a fabulously etched-and-gilded hunting sword crafted for “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
The third major section on the museum’s lower floor is the Rodin Gallery. In addition to a bronze replica of Auguste Rodin’s most famous work, The Thinker, there is a recreation of the artist’s workshop. But more interesting is the 1860 half-size casting of Theseus Fighting the Centaur Bianor, an important work by Antoine-Louis Barye, one of the period’s most renowned “animalier” (an artist who specializes in the realistic depiction of animals in two or three dimensions).
This is a work of international significance. Some years after Barye’s death, a group of his admirers funded the production of a large-scale version of the work. It stood in a square in Paris dedicated to the artist’s memory until World War II, when it was seized by the Nazis and melted down.
In 1999, the Paris Municipality contacted Chimei Museum (then located inside one of the company’s industrial sites) to arrange a loan of the work so a replica could be made. The replacement, installed in 2011, bears a Chinese inscription signifying the city’s gratitude to the museum.
Upstairs is where visitors will find paintings, drawings, sculptures, and musical instruments. It is here that the founder’s wish to provide a complete outline of the history of Western fine arts from the 13th century to the present day is being realized.
Big names represented by original works include Jan Brueghel the Younger, Marc Chagall, Gustave Doré, and Pablo Picasso. An oil painting by a less famous artist, Thomas Cooper Gotch’s The Message, gives its name to one of the two restaurants inside the museum.
This writer’s favorite is not a painting, however, but Pietro Calvi’s Bust of Othello, The Moor of Venice. This work, from 1869, has a bronze face wrapped in a marble cloak, and a bronze hand holding a strikingly realistic marble handkerchief. It is replete with emotion – as it should be, depicting the moment Othello becomes convinced his wife has been unfaithful.
The Musical Instruments section includes a complete luthier’s workshop, a vast selection of string instruments and violin bows, and the unique Walk-In Orchestra. As an educational device, the orchestra is second to none. Each section of a modern orchestra is represented by a large screen on which a member of the Taipei-based National Symphony Orchestra demonstrates how his or her instrument is played. Visitors can wander from brass to woodwinds to percussion, in the process learning a great deal if they understand Chinese (the commentary is in Mandarin only).
Each hour on the hour between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., the orchestra performs a piece by Beethoven, Prokofiev, or Smetana. The experience surely inspires some visitors to attend a concert for the first time in their lives.
Oddities in this part of the museum include an 1880 pipe organ shipped to Taiwan on a U.S. Navy vessel at the request of an American missionary, antique gramophones, and a pair of jukeboxes. There are also ancient keyboard instruments, such as a spinet and a dulce melos.
The museum’s collection of mechanical musical instruments is a fascinating convergence of entertainment and engineering. Some of the devices are highly portable, while others are as large as wardrobes.
One of the most advanced machines here, manufactured in Germany in 1924, used pneumatic technology to create the sounds of a piano and three violins. The latter were played with a single, circular bow that could move at four different speeds.
Tunes for these machines were stored on disks, cylinders, or long rolls of stiff paper. Just as telecoms companies find they make more money in the long run if cellphones are inexpensive, enterprises like American Automusic Co. (makers of The Encore, a mechanical banjo) offered leasing and other options to customers, hoping they would spend a lot on media.
Several of the machines still work perfectly and give daily performances. To attend one of these, visitors must queue – the audience is limited to 120 people – and pay an additional NT$20.
Some of the most valuable violins, violas, and cellos in the museum’s collection are not usually on display. Often, they are not even on the premises, having been loaned to musicians as part of Chi Mei Cultural Foundation’s ongoing effort to stimulate cultural development.
The museum holds the oldest cello in the world that is still playable. Crafted in Italy in 1566 and once owned by King Charles IX of France, this instrument is taken out of storage only on special occasions. In its long history, the cello has been stolen, recovered, restored, and resized for better sound. Royal emblems painted on the back are still clearly visible.
Two of the 24 violins known to have been owned by Niccolò Paganini are here, as is a viola believed to have been the first instrument of its type in the British Isles. The latter is said to have been gifted to England’s Queen Elizabeth I by King Henry IV of France. Its maker, Girolamo Amati, was a son of the luthier who made the Charles IX cello; one of Girolamo’s sons trained several apprentices who went on to enjoy great success, among them Antonio Stradivari.
These treasures are kept in a special storage facility to which only VIPs, researchers, and fortunate journalists are given access. The temperature is a constant 23 degrees Celsius; humidity is kept between 55 and 60 percent. Sensors in the ceiling are capable of detecting not only smoke but also dust or perfumes that could damage the instruments.
Even if there is no chance of seeing the oldest instruments in Chimei’s collection, visitors should allow half a day to properly explore the museum, which is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.
All individual and group visitors must book online at least a day in advance. Admission costs NT$200, or NT$150 for students and senior citizens.
The museum is the central feature of Tainan Metropolitan Park, which according to the Ministry of the Interior’s Construction and Planning Agency is Taiwan’s fourth-largest park.
Architect Tsai Yi-cheng (蔡宜璋) strove to meet Shi Wen-long’s “cultural renaissance” concept, which is why the edifice incorporates Renaissance elements such as domes, pilaster, and columns with Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric capitals. The building is energy-efficient and has attained a Silver LEED rating.
Those driving from the north can take either freeway, then head west along Expressway 86. The nearest exit to the museum, at kilometer-mark 5, is labeled “Tainan.”
The museum is about 700 meters from the Baoan TRA Railway Station, which is served by commuter trains (but not expresses) linking Tainan and Kaohsiung. Travel time from Tainan is just six minutes (one-way fare: NT$15).
From the Tainan HSR Station, the TRA shuttle to central Tainan stops at Baoan; it takes 15 minutes and costs NT$15 one way. From the bullet-train station, one can also take HSR Shuttle Bus H31 (free; get off at Tainan Metropolitan Park stop), or hail a taxi (approximately NT$300).