Ancient arts' renaissance
The director of Taiwan's National Palace Museum is every bit an art expert and connoisseur, but it is her managerial skills that have caught the attention of her mainland counterparts, as they try to emulate her success.
After she accepted Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's invitation in May, 2008, to head the museum, she has set at least three notable milestones for the 46-year-old institution.
Last year, the museum set a record for the most visitors in a single year - 3.5 million - and it raked in a record annual revenue of about NT$1 billion (HK$254 million).
That revenue included NT$680 million from the museum's 'cultural creativity' business, which Chou expanded after becoming director.
That includes the sale of replicas of artefacts and commercial works of art designed in the theme of the artefacts. Another impressive feat was her trip to the mainland in February 2009, which led to the first co-operation between Taipei's museum and Beijing's Palace Museum, and a proliferation of cross-strait cultural exchanges thereafter.
'Reviving the charm of the ancient collection and creating new values for the museum are what I have striven to do since I returned here,' Dr Chou Kung-shin told the South China Morning Post.
Chou worked at the museum for 27 years before leaving in 1999 to teach at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei, where she became dean of the Graduate Institute of Museum Studies in 2002. The experience that she gained there, coupled with her familiarity with the museum, led to Ma's invitation to head it.
Asked about the historic exchanges following her trip to the mainland, the 64-year-old with doctorates in art history and archaeology from Paris-Sorbonne University deflected credit, saying: 'It was just the result of the mainland-engagement policy of President Ma.'
A month after she returned from the mainland, the two museums signed a co-operation pact, paving the way for the Beijing museum to send 37 Qing dynasty (1644-1911) imperial treasures for the mainland's first joint exhibition in Taipei in October 2009.
'That exhibition alone brought in more than 755,000 visitors,' Chou said, adding that the museum was later able to borrow a number of other treasures kept by mainland museums, including the Inner Mongolia Museum and Tibet's Potala Palace museum, for three large-scale exhibitions in Taipei in February, July and October last year. A notable example of what can be achieved by mainland and Taiwanese museums working together, Chou said, was the reunion in Taipei this year of two separated parts of a famed Chinese painting called Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, created by Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) artist Huang Gongwang between 1347 and 1350.
At the suggestion of Premier Wen Jiabao , the Zhejiang Provincial Museum agreed to send the smaller piece of the painting to Taiwan for an exhibition in June alongside the larger piece, which is kept by the Taipei museum.
It was the first time the painting had been exhibited in its entirety in 360 years.
Following the painting's successful exhibition, Chou said the Taipei museum had further increased international co-operation by featuring a display of artefacts from the Qing dynasty's Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722) and from Louis XIV, the king of France (1638-1715). The effort required co-operation among 13 French museums, three mainland museums and the Taipei museum. 'Early next year, we will have another international joint exhibition with the theme being 'Jewels of the East meet the West', for which we will have exhibits from the Shenyang Palace Museum and France's Louvre Museum,' she said.
Despite the obstacles to sending artefacts to the mainland, Chou said the exchanges between the museums included swapping publications and digital images of artefacts, seminars for cross-strait experts, and a number of visits to major mainland museums. 'Since July 2009, we have sent more than seven groups of personnel to Beijing's Palace Museum and the Shanghai Museum for visits,' Chou said, adding that the mainland side had also sent a large number of museum personnel to Taiwan.
One of the main reasons museum personnel from the mainland have visited the Taipei museum is to learn from its lucrative cultural-creativity business that Chou has developed so well. The museum has an online store (www.npmshops.com), that does particularly well.
'In 2009, the revenue from our cultural-creativity business totalled NT$550 million, and last year it reached NT$680 million,' said Chou, who expects the amount to increase this year. While many mainland museums complain about inadequate funds for operations, the performance of Taipei's National Palace Museum has opened the eyes of other museum directors.
Chou said expanding the cultural-creativity industry was a major part of the national development policy of Ma's government. 'This is also a way to revive the charm of the ancient collections and to create new value for the museum,' she said. Since 2008, the museum has contracted a number of world-renowned or distinguished design teams to create various kinds of souvenirs and gift items based on the images of the artefacts.
In 2009, the museum organised free cultural-creativity courses and held competitions to cultivate and recruit talented designers, who could help create more popular cultural-creativity products for the museum, Chou said.
More than 4,000 types of such products are sold not only in the museum's souvenir shop and its online store, some of them are also marketed in other countries.
'The industry is so important that we are planning to establish a cultural-creativity industrial park as part of our 'Grand Palace Museum Project',' Chou said, referring to a 10-year, NT$20 billion effort that will begin next year with the aim of expanding the museum fivefold.
Chou said the museum had also signed agreements with several upscale restaurants and cafe houses to provide reasonably-priced food and drinks to visitors.'Once a museum has things people want to see, people will visit; and when they visit, they will stop by the souvenir department at the end and buy something to bring back with them,' Chou said.
But in order to keep people coming back, it is necessary for a museum to keep its exhibits fresh and appealing. So it is a museum's job to educate the public so that visitors are not limited to simply art experts and connoisseurs, Chou says.
'I have 27 years of experience in exhibitions and educating the public, plus nine years of academic experience in training professional museum personnel, so I am well aware of the importance of the educational function of the museum,' she said.
'By using exhibitions as tools to invoke the interest of the public, we are able to educate them on how to appreciate artworks, thereby increasing their understanding of and interest in the works of art,' she said. To increase the public's interest in an exhibition, Chou said her museum had been holding various activities to improve people's understanding of the items featured.
An example of this was last month's staging of The Kangxi Emperor and Louis-Dieudonne - an opera combining music from the East and West - in Taipei's National Palace Museum. The opera tells the story of the relationship between the emperor and the French king 300 years ago.
The performance was staged as a prelude to the joint, three-month exhibition of artefacts from that period. Opera stars from France and Taiwan were invited to perform in the show to further boost interest.
The Taipei museum went a step further by getting one of its contracted restaurants to provide 12 dishes said to be favoured by Emperor Kangxi.
Chou said other ways to attract and educate the public included providing guided tours and seminars, organising educational activities for children and even staging traditional and local Chinese operas to enhance the public's appreciation of local Chinese operas and folk art.
The museum had also been organising island-wide educational exhibitions of replicas of treasures and related items for the public and even prison inmates, she said. Three-dimensional digital images of the museum's items, including the world-famous Jadeite Cabbage, are particularly popular.
Chou said her museum had also been promoting its trendy and close-to-the-public image through TV ads and even electronic games. 'All these efforts are aimed at helping people better understand and appreciate the artefacts, thereby making the museum a place most people will want to visit,' she said.
The number of cultural objects in Taiwan's National Palace Museum as of December, 2010. That includes 5,296 paintings, 3,594 calligraphic works, and 25,506 ceramics