Lessons from Ukraine prompt Taiwan’s largest museum to conduct ‘wartime response’ drills

Written by Wayne Chang, CNNTaipei, Taiwan

In March, amid growing fears of a Russian attack on Ukraine’s cultural capital, Lviv, staff at the city’s National Museum frantically packed up and hid thousands of its treasures.

Now, over 5,000 miles away, another world-renowned institution is also preparing for the threat of a possible invasion.

Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, which has one of the world’s finest collections of Chinese imperial relics, is actively considering how it would protect its treasures if Beijing launched an attack. As China steps up military pressure on the self-governing island, the institution last week conducted its first-ever “wartime response exercise” centered on the evacuation of its artifacts.

“The most important purpose of this exercise is to let our staff know who does what if war breaks out and how to react,” museum director Wu Mi-cha told CNN ahead of the training session, adding that the he institution was working with security and law enforcement to refine its plans.

Personnel were guided through various scenarios and protocols during the exercise.

Personnel were guided through various scenarios and protocols during the exercise. Credit: National Palace Museum

The move comes after Wu revealed to lawmakers that he was unable to think of an ideal location to store the museum’s historic relics in the event of war. Pressed on his plans at a parliamentary meeting in mid-March, just weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the director promised to devise an evacuation strategy and hold a drill in July .
China’s ruling Communist Party has long claimed Taiwan as its own territory and, although it has never controlled the island, has not ruled out taking it by force. In recent months, the self-governing democracy of 24 million people has faced a growing military posture from China, which has frequently sent fighter jets near the island. In late June, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force flew 29 aircraft into the territory’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the third highest daily number of aircraft jet this year, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense.
China’s tacit support for Russia’s war on Ukraine has fueled speculation about its intentions with Taiwan, raising questions about how the world might react if it launched an attack. Concerns about a possible invasion prompted the Taiwanese government to step up its combat readiness and wartime readiness. Three other institutions in Taiwan — the National Taiwan Museum, the National Museum of Taiwan History and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts — confirmed to CNN that they are also developing evacuation strategies for their collections.

During last week’s exercise, around 180 personnel learned how to react to various scenarios, including asking for police or military assistance if security installations are damaged and artefacts are seized by enemy forces. The special training will be added to existing security drills (which are currently focused on terrorist attacks and natural disasters in the earthquake-prone capital, Taipei) to strengthen the staff’s overall ability to protect the collection, according to the museum.

The special training will be added to existing safety drills.

The special training will be added to existing safety drills. Credit: National Palace Museum

In the event of an evacuation, the museum said it would focus on safeguarding around 90,000 relics from its collection of 700,000, prioritizing more valuable artifacts and those that take up less space. .

“Whether we should evacuate the artifacts is up to the commander-in-chief in the event of war. That said, the museum needs to prepare now, so that we can act immediately if we receive such orders,” officials from the museum said. museum. .

The museum would not disclose where the evacuated items would be stored, or how they would be transported there.

survive two wars

The National Palace Museum in Taiwan is renowned for its vast collection of artifacts once housed in the Palace Museum of the Forbidden City in Beijing – treasures that have already survived two wars.

In the early 1930s, in anticipation of a Japanese invasion of Beijing, the Chinese government moved parts of the Imperial collection south to Shanghai and Nanjing. Later that decade, many artifacts were transported further inland to various locations in Sichuan Province.

Parts of the Imperial Collection displayed outside the Supreme Harmony Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing before being moved south to Shanghai and Nanjing.

Parts of the Imperial Collection displayed outside the Supreme Harmony Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing before being moved south to Shanghai and Nanjing. Credit: National Palace Museum

Accompanied by a group of dedicated escorts, facing constant threats of bombardment, the treasures were transported across the country via trains, trucks, horse carts and boats, hidden in temples and caves the along the way. In 1947, two years after Japan’s surrender to the Allies, the collection was brought together in Nanjing.

The treasures were accompanied by escorts on their journey through China.

The treasures were accompanied by escorts on their journey through China. Credit: Chuang Ling/National Palace Museum

But by then, the bloody civil war between the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) insurgents had resumed. When defeated KMT forces retreated to Taiwan in 1949, they took with them more than 600,000 objects from the Palace Museum and other academic institutions – artifacts, works of art, books, maps and government documents that will form the backbone of the Taipei Museum’s collection.

After storing the artifacts in an old sugar factory and cave outside the Taiwanese city of Taichung, the KMT dug tunnels deep into a hillside on the outskirts of Taipei for safekeeping of the artifacts. The National Palace Museum was eventually built at the foot of the hill and, after opening in 1965, began displaying the collection to the public.

Museum staff at work, as parts of the Imperial collection have been temporarily stored in a cave outside Taichung.

Museum staff at work, as parts of the Imperial collection have been temporarily stored in a cave outside Taichung. Credit: Chuang Ling/National Palace Museum

The political importance of the museum

For decades, the museum and its treasures have been imbued with political and national symbolism.

When the KMT retreated to Taiwan, it took what it considered the most valuable pieces from the Palace Museum’s collection. According to Hsu Ya-hwei, a professor of art history at National Taiwan University, owning the items positions the party as the guardian of Chinese culture and bolsters its claim to be China’s legitimate government. .

One of the most famous artifacts in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan is the jadeite cabbage.

One of the most famous artifacts in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan is the jadeite cabbage. Credit: Koji Sasahara/AP

Hsu added that this position became more prominent during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when large swaths of Chinese heritage were destroyed during Mao Zedong’s campaign against the “Four Olds”: ancient customs, culture, habits and ideas.

“It was during this time that the museum’s collection became very important, because it was the embodiment of Chinese culture,” Hsu said.

In recent decades, the National Palace Museum has expanded its reach beyond China, holding different types of exhibitions and opening a new southern branch in rural Chiayi County that showcases the interconnectedness of Asian cultures. But its collection of mainland treasures is what “put Taiwan on the map”, said Wu, the museum’s director.

“The war brought these artifacts to Taiwan,” he added. “It is incumbent upon us to protect these legacies which are invaluable to human civilizations.”

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