A Possible Blind Spot on Decolonisation in Taiwan’s Museums

Written by Pin-Hua Chou.

Image credit: 1935始政40週年台灣博會會場鳥瞰圖 by Pbdragonwang/ Wikimedia commons, license: public domain.

When it comes to the Universal Exposition held in Paris in 1931, there are many criticisms of imperialism and colonialism appearing in all kinds of articles, both academic and non-academic. But, interestingly, speaking of the Taiwan exposition in commemoration of the first forty years of colonial rule in 1935, all the information in Mandarin that we can find at first glance seems to have a tendency to praise the Japanese government of the time by describing how valuable and grandiose achievements were made in this specific exposition under the rule of the Japanese empire and to belittle the ROC government at the same time. 

For example, the book by Jia-huei Cheng, entitled Taiwan’s First Ever Exposition – 1935 Glamorous Taiwan SHOW, describes in detail how the Japanese colonial government took the experiences of Western empires and adopted the methodology of representing international expositions. Although the purpose of these two expositions in 1931 and 1935 is slightly different, they both aimed at showcasing the power of empire to the world. The Universal Exposition in 1931 Paris basically constructed an entire Francophone world in the exposition, structurally placing the metropolis of France in the centre and all the French colonies in the periphery, while the Taiwan exposition in 1935 emphasised more on the result that the Japanese government had achieved in Taiwan, promoting the modernisation resulted from the Japanese colonial rule. In this sense, the 1931 Universal Exposition aimed at a worldwide audience, and the Taiwan exposition was more of a display of colonial power to Japanese citizens and subjects in Taiwan. Although Cheng also deals with whether Taiwanese people at the time supported this event in her book, she only devoted a tiny amount of space to the related discussion. 

One major distinction between the reflections of these two expositions is that France was once an empire, and it is easy for people to judge such an imperial product as Universal Exposition. Even for the French, they easily criticise their own colonial history. While Taiwan is a once-colonised island and different authorities have constantly colonised Taiwan, it is more perplexing for the Taiwanese to consider the existence of the Taiwan Exposition. Throughout its history, Taiwan has been colonised by the Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, and some might even say the ROC regime. In Taiwan, people have to deal with a relatively complicated colonial history, which means that Taiwan has to struggle with multifaceted decolonisation.

For the general Taiwanese public, the most pressing issue at the moment is to ideologically cut ties with the ROC regime. As the saying goes, “The enemy of my enemy is a friend”. The ROC propaganda portrayed Japanese colonial rule as an omnipotent evil force during the ROC regime. Under KMT rule, everything related to Japan was unacceptable, and it was forbidden to speak Japanese and worship Japanese culture. In the recent process of rewriting Taiwan’s history to counterbalance the KMT’s view of history, historians have begun to focus more on Taiwan’s modern development in all aspects during the Japanese colonial period, including cultural, industrial, and agricultural progress, rather than emphasising the oppression and injustice under the Japanese rule. Hence, after the awareness of Taiwan’s Independence is on the rise, the sentiment of pro-Japanese gradually blossomed, which may possibly explain why it seems that the Taiwanese media all share the same position on the issue of Taiwan’s Exposition. The question is whether the preference to focus on the bright side of the Japanese colonial empire prevents Taiwan from decolonising itself? 

Usually, people tend to think of decolonisation as taking place in the countries where the former empires were located because they were there to take over the power, to colonise others, so to speak. But does anyone ever think about the possibility of multiple forms of decolonisation in once-colonised countries like Taiwan? In recent years, most of the museum decolonisation practices that we have seen most often occur with the issue of openness of aboriginal ethnological objects; how can the museum work with tribes to truly understand the meaning of these objects, display them appropriately, or even enable these objects to travel back to their own original culture or tribe. It is undeniable that this is one of the most important dimensions of decolonisation that should be addressed in Taiwan, but because of the importance of exhibiting, studying, and interpreting Taiwan aboriginal objects, should we not only focus on the interrelationship of museums and aboriginal collections that have transformed on the island but also learn more about Taiwan’s aboriginal objects that have fallen abroad because Taiwan was once colonised?

Although not pervasive in Taiwanese scholarly articles, literature on decolonisation in museums related to Taiwan’s aboriginal collections overseas is still visible. For example, cheng-hao Tsai published an article entitled “Transformation and Reinterpretation: The aboriginal Taiwanese Exhibit at the Tokyo National Museum”. However, his research focuses on the Taiwan aboriginal collections in the Tokyo National Museum, which is not in Taiwan. Still, he addresses the transformation of the presentation of Taiwan’s ethnological collections in the museum during the imperial and postcolonial periodsInitially, the Japanese colonial administration assembled and showcased indigenous artefacts from Taiwan to assert their political and military dominance while presenting these unique items to their populace. However, the global political landscape shifted during the postcolonial period following World War II.

Consequently, the Tokyo National Museum withdrew the Taiwanese indigenous collections from the permanent exhibit display. In 1968, as part of the museum’s renovation, it created an East Asia Pavilion, which once again displays these aboriginal collections from a completely different perspective. From a Japanese imperial aspect to an Austronesian aspect, the Tokyo National Museum finds a niche to decolonise its way of presenting these collections. However, one thing to reconsider about its decolonisation is whether the museum attempts to address the history of object acquisition in the exhibition narrative. Investigating how objects were acquired and ultimately came to the museum is essential to addressing colonial history. For Tsai, what he saw in this exhibition is not about how the Tokyo National Museum acquired these collections and whether it is the ideal place to tell the stories of these collections. Instead, he suggests that the case of the Tokyo National Museum could provide us with a good example of changing perspective and confronting objects with difficult histories, which reveals the fact that in Taiwan, the issue of reconciliation between the Han people and the aborigines is the most important one. 

Museums in Taiwan are dedicated to the issue of decolonisation, especially concerning aboriginal collections. Reinterpretation, repatriation and collaboration are all central concerns for the museums. However, the debate on the repatriation of Taiwan’s aboriginal objects seems to be taking place only within the museums in Taiwan. If we take a closer look at the diaspora of Taiwan’s aboriginal collections, we’ll be so surprised by how sporadic it is. The appeal against the museums of repatriation has happened worldwide, but why does the discussion regarding the repatriation of Austronesian collections originating from Taiwan seem to be less mentioned in Taiwan? For example, the ethnological collections in the British Museum are undervalued and are left alone in the museum’s storage room. Yet, over two hundred pieces of Taiwanese aboriginal objects were stored in the British Museum after the Japan-British Exposition in 1910. Moreover, many objects and goods collected or produced by the Governor’s Office of Taiwan for the exposition were not returned to Taiwan after the exposition but were donated to various museums and collections in Britain, including textiles, clothing, utensils, baskets, decorations and so on. 

If we already understand that these extensive ethnological collections were dispersed overseas because of the exposition during the Japanese colonial rule, shouldn’t we be more critical about the rationality of these collections becoming cultural properties in the former empire countries? The repatriation movement, even if it is not a real action, at least a certain amount of discussion should occur not only between the museum in Taiwan and the tribes but also in those overseas museums that own those ethnological objects of the tribes in Taiwan. When we think about those Taiwanese aboriginal artefacts that have wandered around the world, it is impossible not to mention how those artefacts ended up in the museum of the former empires. But if both Japan (former coloniser) and Taiwan (former colonised) choose not to forcefully raise this issue, it would be just like how the 1935 Taiwan Exposition is generally portrayed positively without much reflection and criticism; it might become an obstacle to decolonisation in Taiwan’s museums. As Homi Bhabha said, memory is a process of putting together all the mutilated past to understand the present trauma. These Taiwan ethnological collections overseas are similar to the mutilated past, which is the best metaphor to understand the facet still lacking concern.

Pin-Hua Chou is a PhD student in the Department of History at UCLA, specialising in anthropological museums in France from the 19th century to the present day. She worked as an assistant curator in Musée de l’Homme and Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris from 2016-2017. This experience sharpened her skills to conduct research in anthropological museums and furthered her interest in long-term transformations that deeply changed the way francophone regions decolonised themselves. After graduating from the master’s program in museum studies at the Taipei National University of the Arts, she worked as a research assistant under the guidance of Dr Frank Muyard at the French School of Asian Studies Taipei Center (Ecole Française d’Extrême Orientv Centre Taipei) for two years (2018-2020), which enabled her to hone her own academic skills and deepen her understanding of French anthropological museums. She is encouraged to pursue further studies to delve deeper into the relationship between museums and anthropology and to evaluate her research in the context of the current trends in multidisciplinary research, both locally and internationally.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled “Museums in Taiwan: Intertwining the Past and the Present.”

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