Lessons from Ukraine prompt a leading Taiwanese museum to conduct “war response” exercises

Lessons from Ukraine prompt a leading Taiwanese museum to conduct “war response” exercises | Pro Club Bd

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, more than 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 should Beijing launch an attack. As China ramped up military pressure on the self-governing island, the institution last week conducted its first “war response exercise,” focused on evacuating its artifacts.

“The most important goal of this exercise is to let our staff know who will do what when war breaks out and how to respond,” museum director Wu Mi-cha told CNN ahead of the training session, adding that the institution with They work with security and law enforcement agencies to refine their plans.

The employees were guided through various scenarios and protocols during the exercise. Recognition: National Palace Museum

The move comes after Wu told lawmakers he could not think of an ideal place to house the museum’s historical relics in the event of war. Pressed about his plans during a parliamentary session in mid-March, just weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the director pledged to work out an evacuation strategy and hold an exercise in July.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has long claimed Taiwan as its own territory and, while never controlling the island, has not ruled out taking it by force. In recent months, the self-governing democracy of 24 million people has faced growing military bullying 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 jets this year, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry.
China’s tacit support for Russia’s war on Ukraine has fueled speculation about its intentions with Taiwan and raised questions about how the world might react should it launch an attack. Concerns about a possible invasion have prompted the Taiwanese government to step up its combat readiness and war preparations. 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, about 180 personnel were taught how to respond to various scenarios, including how to summon help from the police or military when security installations are damaged and artifacts are confiscated by enemy forces. The special training will be added to existing security drills (which are currently targeted at terrorist attacks and natural disasters in the earthquake-prone capital, Taipei) to improve the overall ability of staff to protect the collection, the museum said.

The specific training will be added to existing safety drills.

The specific training will be added to existing safety drills. Recognition: National Palace Museum

In the event of an evacuation, the museum said it would focus on rescuing around 90,000 relics from its 700,000-strong collection, prioritizing artifacts of higher value and those taking up less space.

“In the event of war, it is up to the commander-in-chief whether we have to evacuate the artefacts. However, the museum must prepare now so that we can act immediately if we receive such orders,” museum officials said.

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

Survived two wars

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

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

Parts of the imperial collection were displayed outside the Forbidden City's Gate of Supreme Harmony in Beijing before moving south to Shanghai and Nanjing.

Parts of the imperial collection were displayed outside the Forbidden City’s Gate of Supreme Harmony in Beijing before moving south to Shanghai and Nanjing. Recognition: National Palace Museum

Accompanied by a group of dedicated escorts who faced constant bomb threats, the treasures were brought across the country by train, truck, horse-drawn cart, and boat, hiding in temples and caves along the way. In 1947, two years after Japan’s surrender to the Allies, the collection was rebuilt in Nanjing.

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

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

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

After storing the items in a former sugar mill and cave outside of the Taiwan city of Taichung, KMT tunneled deep into a hill on the outskirts of Taipei to keep the artifacts safe. The National Palace Museum was eventually built at the foot of the hill and began displaying the collection to the public after opening in 1965.

Museum staff at work as parts of the imperial collection were temporarily stored in a cave outside of Taichung.

Museum staff at work as parts of the imperial collection were temporarily stored in a cave outside of Taichung. Recognition: Chuang Ling/National Palace Museum

The political importance of the museum

For decades, the museum and its treasures have been steeped in political and national symbolism.

When the KMT withdrew to Taiwan, it took with it what it considered to be the most valuable pieces of the Palace Museum’s collection. Owning these objects positioned the party as the guardian of Chinese culture and strengthened its claim to be China’s legitimate government, according to Hsu Ya-hwei, a professor of art history at National Taiwan University.

One of the most famous artifacts from Taiwan's National Palace Museum is the jadeite cabbage.

One of the most famous artifacts from Taiwan’s National Palace Museum is the jadeite cabbage. Recognition: Koji Sasahara/AP

Hsu added that this position gained prominence during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when large parts of China’s heritage were destroyed in Mao Zedong’s campaign against the “Four Elders”: ancient customs, culture, habits, and ideas.

“During this period, 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 scope beyond China by hosting various types of exhibitions and opening a new southern branch in rural Chiayi County that showcases the interconnectivity of Asian cultures. But his collection of mainland treasures “put Taiwan on the map,” said museum director Wu.

“The war brought these artifacts to Taiwan,” he added. “It is up to us to protect these legacies that are invaluable to human civilization.”

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