The National Palace goes digital!

by on Wednesday, 09 March 2011 Comments

This article has been adapted from S. Bozzato's research project on the National Palace Museum, "Like City Lights Receding: An assessment of the National Palace Museum Digitization Project."

 

 

 

Treasure house of Chinese art

 

The National Palace Museum in Taipei (R.O.C.) is universally regarded as the treasure house of Chinese Art. From the Neolithic bronzes to the delicate ceramics of the Late Qing Dynasty, the museum’s collection comprises a great number of artworks which testify to the refinement and magnificence of Chinese Art.[1] Besides the aesthetic beauty, the importance of the collection is given by the antiquity and rarity of the pieces, some of which are unique, as the Jadeite Cabbage, a superb example of jade carving, dazzling with a fresh, real-life sparkle.[2]

The history of the National Palace Museum is as much as fascinating as the masterpieces preserved within its walls. For centuries Chinese Emperors and their courtiers had been collecting the most exquisite examples of jades, ceramics, paintings, and calligraphy.[3] Jealously preserved within the walls of the imperial palace in Beijing, the works of art accumulated by many generations formed the private collection of the Emperor. It was only with the fall of the Imperial Regime that this invaluable artistic treasure was to be enjoyed by the Chinese public.

In 1924 the last emperor left the Forbidden City. The Republican Government appointed a committee of experts to examine and catalogue the imperial collection in order to make it available to the public. A year later, on 10 October 1925, the National Palace Museum was formally inaugurated.[4] The choice to establish the new museum inside the very imperial palace was dictated by the concern for the safety of the collection. The preservation of the pieces would have been better assured by leaving them in their original location. Moreover, the visitors’ experience would have been enhanced by the possibility to admire the artworks in the magnificent setting of the imperial palace. However, the choice of the location  also had a strong political connotation, as the foundation of the National Palace Museum was going  to legitimize the new government as the heir of the greatness of the Past.[5]

In few years, the museum’s collection was expanded to include artworks from the Exhibition Office of Ancient Artifacts, the I-ho-Yuan Summer Palace and the Han-Lin-Yuan Imperial Academy.[6] However, in 1933, under the menace of Japanese invasion, 19,557 crates containing the best of the National Palace Museum’s collection were relocated to safer facilities in Shanghai and Nanjing.[7] In 1937, as the conflict grew more violent, the collections were sent far into China's interior, following three separate routes. Despite the circumstances, the museum managed not only to preserve all the extraordinary treasures included in the collection, but also to organize several national and international exhibitions of Chinese Art.[8] It was only in 1945 that the National Palace Museum was finally relocated in Nanjing. However, the political situation remained unstable. Three years later, 2,972 crates were shipped to Taiwan: it was a relatively small portion of the artworks which had left Beijing eleven years before, but it included the best pieces of the collection.[9]

In 1965, the present National Palace Museum was built in Taipei, at Waishuangxi.[10] The beauty of the natural setting was going to add to the atmosphere of the museum, built as the replica of a Chinese palace, with flights of steps and a traditional tiled roof. In the following years, the National Palace Museum undertook many phases of reorganization and expansion.[11] Several buildings were added to the original core of the museum, at the same time, the institution was re-organized into three main departments, namely Antiquities, Painting and Calligraphy, and Rare Books and Documents.[12] As the collection continued to be enlarged thanks to important donations and acquisitions, the international status of the National Palace Museum grew exponentially.[13]

Today, the National Palace Museum is regarded as one of the five top museums in the world: its vast collection is renowned for its beauty and its grade of preservation. However, many of the artworks are also very fragile, so that they can be put on display only for limited time. As a consequence the museum has to manage a constant turn-over of artworks which need to be examined, displayed, put back into the storage rooms and restored.

In time, the need to establish a more efficient and safer collection management system has lead the National Palace Museum to undertake an extensive program of digitization of the collection. The purpose is to create a digital archive of the collection, integrating images, X-rays, and 3D models with information concerning the history and the state of conservation of the artworks.[14] A digital archive enables the staff to add, check, and share information about the collection in a rapid and efficient way. At the same time, high-resolution images and x-rays will allow curators and conservators to conduct non-destructive analysis of the objects, thus increasing the safety of the collection.

 

The NPM Digitization Project

 

The digitization of the collection began in 2001. A year later, the museum became a partner in the National Archives Digitization Project. The goal of this second project, which is being supervised by the Taiwanese government, is to create the basis for a thriving creative and cultural industry by facilitating the accumulation and exchange of  knowledge among different partners in the cultural sectors[15].

With the advancement of technology and globalization, cultural institutions like museums are going to perform an increasingly important role for the economy.[16]

For example, the creation of the NPM Digital Archive will convert an enormous amount of data into valuable assets in the academic, cultural and economic field. This is why the Digitization Project undertaken by the NPM is being widely supported by the government.[17]

Another important concern for the National Palace Museum is the promotion of its cultural and educational offer. The development of the world-wide-web has lead to the emergence of a global, diversified audience for museums. Websites have become a fundamental instrument allowing museums to inform the public, promote their cultural offer, and share knowledge with other institutions. In particular, the development of online learning programs is giving to museums around the world the possibility to expand their audience by reaching out to young people and students. Thus, when setting up the NPM Digital Archive, themes and techniques had been attentively chosen in order to facilitate the development of the NPM website. Once turned into digital files, images and information were going to be combined in a creative manner to convey the beauty and significance of the collection by using a language which is simple and understandable.

In its initial phase, the project was focused on the creation of the NPM Digital Archive. The three collection departments worked to the creation of an archive comprising of high-resolution digital pictures of each piece as well as metadata files containing basic information about the artworks.[18] At the same time, the Department of Registration and Conservation proceeded to convert into digital format the X-ray images of artifacts which were to be integrated with metadata files supplying conservation information about artworks.[19] The effort has been coordinated to create a Digital Archive, integrating all information from the different departments. In order to improve the user interface, search function by key words and ID were introduced to create the Retrieval System for Digital Archives.[20]


bozzato_digital_museum_02

Digital technology and the collection

 

The first benefit connected with the Digitization Project has been the development of an efficient, rapid and safe collection management system. An example of the advantages connected with the use of digital technology is the simplification of the Auditing process. Auditing is one of the most time-consuming tasks carried out in museums. It includes locating each piece of the collection, examining it, and recording its characteristics including eventual changes caused by time or external agents. This process can be particularly long in the case of the National Palace Museum:[21] as many of the artworks are unique and very fragile, only a few members of staff are authorized to inspect them. As a rule, the curator examined the artwork and dictated any relevant information to an assistant who was going to insert the data in an electronic form.

Thanks to the Digital Archive system, information about each artwork can be checked and modified at the very moment it is being examined. When the curator notices a particularity which had not been recorded previously, the new information can be added straightaway into the Digital Archive, without having to re-fill the electronic form.

As a result, an increasing number of information about the collection can be accessed, checked and shared in real time by all members of the museum staff.

In the same way, information can be made available to academics and other cultural organizations collaborating with the National Palace Museum.

As said above, digital technology is also having a growing impact in the field of conservation. In fact, high-quality pictures taken with digital cameras permit the conducting of non-destructive analysis of the artworks, as an increasing number of information on the condition of an artwork can be detected by examining high resolution pictures, or negatives and digital version of x-rays.[22]

However, the Digitization Project also presents some challenges, as it is difficult to translate all data concerning the collection into a digital format. A particular problem is represented by the registration of movement records. Objects preserved in the storage rooms are periodically removed from their boxes to be examined, restored, or exhibited. Depending on the quality of the movement record system adopted by a museum, there is the possibility that not all movements of the objects will be recorded, making it difficult for the staff to locate them or to bring them back to their original place in the storage.

The movement record system adopted by the National Palace Museum is very precise, but also time-consuming, as it requires the staff to fill out three paper forms. It would seem logical to speed the procedure by inserting movement records straightaway in the Digital Archive. Yet, the process could not be so easy. This is because some objects, like the curious boxes,[23] present peculiar characteristics which make their recording in the Digital Archive problematic. Curious boxes are exquisite works of art: when opened, they progressively unfold revealing new, smaller sections. Each section contains a series of gracefully carved figurines which are often so small that their particulars have to be appreciated with the help of magnifying lenses. Each curiosity box is registered with an ID number. The problem confronting the museum staff concerns the figurines contained in the boxes: should the figurines be inserted in the Digital Archives with the same ID number as the curiosity box it lies within? Or should each figurine be assigned its own ID number? This is not a matter of petty bureaucracy, as it arises from a delicate interpretative issue: the staff will be required to decide if each small artwork has a meaning and value of its own or if it makes sense only as a component of the curious box. The problem is further complicated by the fact that, under the present collection management policy, the same ID number cannot be used for two different objects.[24]

Thus, the development of the digital archive system could force the museum to review its collection management policy in order to conciliate the correct interpretation of the significance of the artworks within the limits imposed by the digital format.

 

Digital technology and education

 

During  the second phase of the Digitization Project, documents, information, and high-resolution photograph have been integrated to create the National Palace Museum official website, which supplies information about the museum organization, the collection, and the information services offered to the public. The website is available for consultation in multiple languages including Chinese, English, Japanese, French, Spanish, Korean, and Russian.[25]

Recently, the NPM website has been expanded with the addition of a section devoted to special exhibitions, and with the creation of the Digital Orientation Gallery. In the Digital Orientation Gallery, users are offered an overview of the museum’s exhibitions. By clicking on the video icon on each panel of the virtual room, users can watch a short video illustrating the history and the characteristics of the corresponding collection.

In compliance with the educational mission of the National Palace Museum, particular attention has been paid to the development of the Online Learning section: several educational programs concerning antiquities, paintings, calligraphy and the conservation of artifacts have been made available online. A special effort has been placed in creating a sufficient number of educational programs to fit the needs and interests of users of different ages and background.

The learning programs created by the National Palace Museum are distinguished by the use of the hyper-textual[26] approach (a captivating fusion of text, video, and sound) in order to express complex concepts in simplified, accessible way.

For example, the “Fashionable versus the Antiquarian,”[27] introduces the user to the debate between "fashionable innovation" and "classical revival" in Chinese Art. The focus is on the development of different jade-carving styles at the time of Emperor Ch’ien-lung (mid-18th Century) and the consequent efforts of the emperor to contrast the diffusion of a taste for overly-elaborate jade-carvings among the people. Such a difficult subject is presented to the public by using a lively combination of text and images. In this way users get involved into a highly-specialized debate from which non-experts are normally excluded.  The fact that the museum has been able to achieve such an ambitious educational goal by adopting a basically simple, easy approach reveals how deeply digital technology is changing the educational role of museums. In particular, the development of 3D virtual models which can be moved and rotated with a click of the mouse are turning the learning process into an experience which is both educational and entertaining, because interactive exploration favors memorization and leads the user to adopt a pro-active approach to learning.[28]

A whole section of the NPM website has been created thanks to 3D digital photography. 3D models of some of the most popular pieces of the collection, as the Revolving Vase, the Carved Ivory Ball, and the Olive Stone Miniature Boat can be explored by the user navigating the “Digital Glimpse” section.[29] By clicking on the image of the Revolving Vase, the user can choose among different learning options: he can read a short history of the artwork, view a lively animation, unfold the structure of the vase, and also make the interior component of the vase move, thus observing the revolving effect from which the vase takes its name.

3D visualization also permits the public to explore miniature artworks like the Olive Stone Miniature Boat [30], or objects with a particularly complex structure, like the Ivory Ball, which is composed of twenty one layers of finely carved ivory.

In the first case, the virtual copy of the boat can be unfolded revealing the finely carved interior. The user can also read the famous poem “Ode to the Red Cliff”, inscribed on the bottom of the boat.

In the second case, a funny animation allows the user to “visit” the interior of the ball, while the 3D model of the artwork can be unfolded and moved[31]. The interactive experience offered to the public marks the difference with the traditional educational programs implemented by museums. One of the greatest limits facing the public and the educators in museums is due to the fact that the majority of the artworks cannot be touched or moved. 3D virtual models consent to overcome this problem allowing visitors interact freely with the artworks in the virtual space of the website. Visitors can explore the artworks, rotate them, turn them upside-down, even look inside them. In this way, they can gain a deeper understanding of the collection.[32] The influence of digital technology is not limited to the virtual sphere: the National Palace Museum has developed two online courses teaching users how to apply what they have learned in a practical context.

The focus of “Caring for Collectible Objects” is on conservation. The user learns the most common conservation practices thanks to an interactive program which revolves around a simple storyline.[33] Beginning with the most basic rules for preserving collectible items, the program is organized in sections corresponding to progressively complex tasks.

“Protecting Your Valuable Collections” is the prosecution of “Caring for Collectible Objects”. The course is divided into seven video-lectures, teaching the user how to take care of different objects and materials. At the conclusion of each section, the user is invited to complete a quiz to test his knowledge. The content of this course is more complex than the previous one, the goal is to teach the user how to treat and examine small collectible items in the same way as professional conservators.[34]

In recent years, the National Palace Museum has organized several exhibitions of digital installations which allow people to interact with the artworks: the aim is to bring the interactive experience form the virtual space of the website into a real exhibition space.[35] The success of digital exhibitions highlights the growing importance of digital technology as a formidable learning tool, which can translate the most complex ideas and processes into a simple, visual language, which can be understood by all users.

However, as the content of the learning programs is being expanded and improved, the job of the educators is becoming more difficult and demanding. No matter how ‘intelligent’ new  technology can be:  they will always require a solid educational strategy to be put to good use.[36] Thus, the new programs and learning resources developed by the National Palace Museum will have to be constantly re-adapted to the needs of an increasingly varied public. At the present time, however, the success of the digital learning programs confirms the soundness of the educational vision pursued by the National Palace Museum.

 

 

 

Towards the future

 

The impact of the Digitization Project on the educational policy of the National Palace Museum testifies to the revolution brought forth by digital technology in the museum field. It has made digitization collection management safer and more efficient. At the same time, digitization has made an immense amount of data immediately available to museums, scholars, and the general public. As a result, the concepts of research and education are changing. Thanks to interactivity, the public ceases to be a passive receptor of the information passed on by museums, and every member of the audience is now expected to actively pursue knowledge with the support of the learning tools offered by museums. As this new learning experience takes place mainly in the virtual space of the website, museums  also have an unprecedented opportunity to reach out to new segments of the public including young people, students, and foreigners.  The same is going to happen in the field of research. The digitization of the collection and the development of the website have given to the National Palace Museum the possibility to increase the contacts with cultural organizations and individual scholars around the world. The possibility to share information and practices with partners will enhance the museum's capacity to develop innovative strategies to integrate digital technology with museum programs. In time, such innovative knowledge will be transmitted to other organizations and companies operating outside the cultural field. In turn, this network of cultural institutions, companies and people will constitute the basis for a thriving cultural industry. In all this, the National Palace Museum will be once again called to perform an important role, not only as the ‘cultural ambassador’ of the nation, but also as one of the primary promoters of technological innovation. However, as no innovation can bring real benefits without being firmly rooted in a deep understanding of tradition, the task of the National Palace Museum will be that of balancing culture and technology, putting digital innovation at the service of a millenary cultural tradition. This will represent a fundamental contribution to the development of that knowledge-based economy which is going to be the future of Taiwan.



[1] Feng Ming-Chung, (ed.), Splendours of the National Palace Museum (Taipei, 2010), p.1

[2] Feng Ming-Chung, (ed.), Splendours of the National Palace Museum (Taipei, 2010), p.32

[3] C. Holcombe, The Exemplar State: Ideology, Self-Cultivation, and Power in Fourth-Century China, Harward Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol.49, No. 1 (Jun. 1989), p101

[4] Tradition and Continuity, at  www.npm.gov.tw

[5] Feng Ming-Chung, (ed.), Splendours of the National Palace Museum (Taipei, 2010), p.1

[6] Tradition and Continuity, at www.npm.gov.tw

[7] Treasures of the National Palace Museum guidebook, p.10

[8] Feng Ming-Chung, (ed.), Splendours of the National Palace Museum (Taipei, 2010), p.2

[9] Feng Ming-Chung, (ed.), Splendours of the National Palace Museum (Taipei, 2010), p.2

[10] Feng Ming-Chung, (ed.), Splendours of the National Palace Museum (Taipei, 2010), p.2

[11] Tradition and Continuity, at www.npm.gov.tw

[12]Tradition and Continuity, at  www.npm.gov.tw

[13] Feng Ming-Chung, (ed.), Splendours of the National Palace Museum (Taipei, 2010), p.3

[14] Feng Ming-Chung, (ed.), Splendours of the National Palace Museum (Taipei, 2010), p.227

[15] www.ndap.org.tw

[16] Feng Ming-Chung, (ed.), Splendours of the National Palace Museum (Taipei, 2010), p.233

[17] http://www.npm.gov.tw/digitization/en/ implementation/archives.htm

[18] http://www.npm.gov.tw/digitization/en/implementation/archives.htm

[19] http://www.npm.gov.tw/digitization/en/ implementation/archives.htm

[20] http://www.npm.gov.tw/digitization/en/ implementation/archives.htm

[21] S.Bozzato, ‘Like City Lights Receding: An Assessment of the National Palace Museum Digitization Project’, p.47

[22] Feng Ming-Chung, (ed.), Splendours of the National Palace Museum (Taipei, 2010), p.227

[23]S.Bozzato, ‘Like City Lights Receding: An Assessment of the National Palace Museum Digitization Project’, p.48

[24] S. Bozzato, ‘Like City Lights Receding: An Assessment of the National Palace Museum Digitization Project’, p.48

[25] www.npm.gov.tw/digitization/en implementation/archives.htm /

[26] H. Gardner, ‘Can Technology Exploit Our Many Ways of Knowing?’, www.howardgardner.com, p.33

[27]http://www.npm.gov.tw/english/fashion/index.html

[28] J.M. Bradburne, Interaction in the Museum: Observing, Supporting, and Learning (Libri Books, 2000),  p.55

[29] http://tech2.npm.gov.tw/da/3d/en/intro.htm

[30] http://tech2.npm.gov.tw/da/3d/en/intro.htm

[31] http://tech2.npm.gov.tw/da/3d/en/intro.htm

[32] J.M. Bradburne, Interaction in the Museum: Observing, Supporting, and Learning (Libri Books, 2000), p.61

[33] http://elearning.npm.gov.tw/courses/digital_2-4-2/digital_2-4-2-3/t_course04/online/viewer.htm

[34] http://elearning.npm.gov.tw/protection_en/index.html

[35] http://www.npm.gov.tw/exh99/npm_digital/en3.html

[36] R.W. Sweeny, Lines of Sight in the Network society: Simulation, Art Education, and a Digital Visual Culture, Studies in Art Education, Vol. 46, No. 1, Technology Issue (Autumn, 2004), p.76

Silvia Bozzato

Born in Venice (1977), I studied Special Education at the University of Trieste. After a first professional experience working with disabled adults at La Casa Rossa, I moved to Tasmania, where I graduated in Medieval History and Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania in Hobart.
I hold a MA degree Cum Laude in Arts and Heritage from Maastricht University. I began my career as assistant curator at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart.
Besides collaborating with major museums as the Maritime Museum in Greenwich (UK) and the Taipei National Palace Museum (Taiwan), I received my training in World Heritage Administration at Unesco World Heritage Centre in Paris.
In 2010 I began researching in the field of Digital Art and Culture, my focus being on the relationship between digital language and human interpretation of culture. 
I currently collaborate with Maastricht University as Guest Speaker and Lecturer.
I live between Maastricht and Taiwan, trying to find the balance between Eastern high tech culture and Western tradition.

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