Taiwan’s Museum Act: Culture’s Value as a Matter of Politics

Written by Susan Shih Chang.

Image Credit: Publici Domain

In 1998, the Suho Memorial Paper Museum, a private museum on the history, art and craft of papermaking, received a document from the Department of Education, Taipei City Government stating that it had not been legally registered, and was ordered to suspend business. This highlighted the unrecognized problems for operating private museums regarding issues of filing, management, taxation and etc. Some scholars pointed out that museums like Suho are non-profit organizations, and it is difficult for them to comply to fire safety regulations and architecture related laws, while making ends meet. There needs to be a different regulation that would promote new and existing private museums. The same year, museum and cultural heritage sector professionals and practitioners advocated the need to establish a museum law as soon as possible in order to assist private museum establishments. Supporters pointed out that museums were regulated under the Social Education Act (replaced the Lifelong Learning Act in 2018) and  specialised functions such as collection acquisition, management, preservation, research and exhibition have little guidelines, leaving governing authorities to figure out on their own. On the other hand, opposers reminded that regulations may curb incentives and development of private owned museums.

Despite the complexity of related laws and regulations and the lack of consensus across different ministries, a bill of the Museum Act was proposed by the Ministry of Culture upon its establishment in 2012. The Museum Act was passed in 2015, after undergoing numerous consultation meetings and delays of legislative process. The same year, the number of museums in Taiwan reached 746, including 427 public and 319 private museums.  According to the Ministry of Culture, this new act will allow the government to form substantial legal norms and related support mechanisms in the face of increasingly flourishing museums. “The act is long overdue,” then Minster of Culture Lung Ying-Tsai pointed out in an official statement, “it allows all museums in Taiwan to develop the sale of cultural and creative products along the same lines as their counterparts in the West.” Lung’s statement is aligned with Article 1 of the Museum Act: “This Act was promulgated to promote the development of the museum enterprise to enable comprehensive museum functions, as well as to raise the level of professionalism, public nature, diversity, educational capability and international competitiveness in the enterprise, which will enhance the calibre of culture and history, science and nature, arts and humanities, etc., among members of the public and represents the cultural integrity of the nation.” This indicates that museums are being expected to give priority to economic and social policies, and that museums are expected to justify their role in developmentalist terms.

It is worth pointing out that countries with the highest density of museums, Germany and the United State of America, do not have museum specific laws. Instead, they rely on tax law, or non-profit organizational law to regulated private museum businesses. Some question whether the museum law is necessary, because the definition and functions of museums may change over time, and regulations are usually static and cannot be updated in time. The several case studies in the following sections are examples of how the Museum Act is understood, interpret and used by private museum owners and local government. We will see that in certain instances, despite the good intentions of the Museum Act, it has become a vehicle for private museums to achieve other non-cultural related proposes, and one way is through applying and obtaining the local government’s museum certification.

According to then Minister of Culture Lung Ying-Tai, the Museum Act underscores the government’s commitment to keeping the development of such facilities in Taiwan on a strong growth track. Base on Article 16 of the Act, “The central competent authority shall establish a system for museum certification and evaluation which recognizes professionalism in the areas of collection, research, exhibition, education, management and public service, etc.” The Act allows the government to provide advisory support and funding for matters such as artefact repair, as well as spurring cross-museum collaboration on art collections, educational initiatives and event promotions to certified museums. This is one of the reasons that some private museums want to be certified.

One case that reflects how the Museum Act is being instrumentalized for other mean is Museum 207. In August, Museum 207, a historical house made up of an exhibition hall, coffee shop and an observation deck became the first museum registered by the Taipei City government. The exhibition itself does not contain any “collections/artefacts” apart from large posters, banners and borrowed objects for display. In October, we see a similar case: the Museum of Ancient Chinese Lives claims to be on the “list of 100 important museums of China”, in fact an antique shop pressured the Department of Cultural Affairs to find a storage and exhibit room for their artefacts. The “director” of the museum cited Article 7: “competent authorities shall provide professional advice, relevant technical assistance, personnel training programs, and financial grants to public and private museums… for the purpose of maintaining the quality of museum collections…”. The two cases exemplifies that although the original purpose of the Museum Act is to encourage the private sector to facilitate the inheritance of local culture and prevent the use of museums as a means of urban gentrification, “museums” seem to taken their own paths and become vehicles of leverage in the governing process.

However, up until 2019 only 17 public museums and 5 private museums have been certified. While the Ministry of Culture plans to speed up the process in the future, several museum related institutions, mostly private ones and local museums on a smaller scale, have made complains about the amount of paperwork, inadequate subsidies and grants and the lack incentives to file for the proces.  The different situations faced when applying for museum certification and subsidies shows discusses the differences between the government and private museum owners’ perceptions of museums.

In addition to different expectations between the government and the private museum owners. The interpretation of museums and the Museum Act varies within the government itself. Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines which was originally housed under the Department of Education (DE), Taipei City Government, was “let out” as the head of DE cited Article 6: “The central competent authorities shall establish museums of indigenous cultures in order to promote the sustainable development of indigenous culture, for the purpose of collection, preservation and research of literature, cultural artefacts, and history of indigenous peoples.” The role of the competent authority was pushed around by the Education Department, Cultural Department and the Council of Indigenous People. It is now housed under the Council of Indigenous People, under the adjudication of the Mayor of Taipei City. One good news in this incident of palming off responsibilities is that, for established museums such as Shung Ye, funded by their own foundation, their goals and actions are less affected by what the government does.

On the government’s side, the Museum Act has become a mechanism for exercising power through specific forms of knowledge and expertise; a technology that shapes society’s thoughts and understanding toward culture. On the applicant’s side, although the local government has control in the process of applying for the registration of a private museum, intentions and understanding from the private museum owners and their interaction with the public sector have added a new dimension and layer to the meaning and means of museums. Such as the case of Museum 207 and the Museum of Ancient Chinese Lives, the name “museums” have been used extensively as a method or technology to “intervene” in the preservation and promotion of local culture. In this sense, museums are actually a kind of vehicle, with other “values” stacked on towards other means.

Susan Shih Chang is a PhD Candidate in Culture Studies at the National University of Singapore with a designated emphasis on theories from Asia and Inter-Asia connections. She is working on museums and national identity in Taiwan. Her works has appeared in a range of publications including International Journal of Taiwan Studies, Curator, New Bloom, and No Man is an Island. 

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