Now, more than 5,000 miles away, another globally acclaimed institution is also preparing for the threat of a possible invasion.
Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, which boasts 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. With China stepping up military pressure on the self-ruled island, the institution last week conducted its first ever “wartime response exercise” centered on evacuating its artifacts.
“The most important goal of this exercise is to let our staff know who is doing what if war breaks out, and how to react,” museum director Wu Mi-cha told CNN prior to the training session, adding that the institution was working with security and law enforcement agencies to refine its plans.
Staff members were walked through various scenarios and protocols during the exercise. Credit: National Palace Museum
During last week’s exercise, about 180 staff members were taught how to respond to various scenarios, including how to request help from police or the military if security facilities are damaged and artifacts are seized by enemy forces. The special training will be added to existing safety drills (which are currently geared toward terrorist attacks and natural disasters in the earthquake-prone capital, Taipei) to boost staff’s overall ability to protect the collection, according to the museum.
The special training will be added to existing safety drills. Credit: National Palace Museum
In the case of an evacuation, the museum said it would focus on saving around 90,000 relics from its 700,000-strong collection, prioritizing artifacts of higher value and those that take up less space.
“Whether we need to evacuate the artifacts is subject to the commander-in-chief if there is a war. That said, the museum needs to prepare itself 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.
Surviving two wars
Taiwan’s National Palace Museum is renowned for its vast collection of artifacts once housed at 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 shown outside the Forbidden City’s Gate of Supreme Harmony in Beijing before they were moved south to Shanghai and Nanjing. Credit: National Palace Museum
Accompanied by a group of dedicated escorts, who faced constant bombing threats, the treasures were taken across the country via trains, trucks, horse carts and boats, being hidden in temples and caves along the way. In 1947, two years after Japan’s surrender to the Allies, the collection was reassembled in Nanjing.
The treasures were accompanied by escorts in their journey across China. Credit: 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, artworks, books, maps and government records that would form the backbone of the Taipei museum’s collection.
After storing the items in a former sugar mill and a cave outside the Taiwanese city of Taichung, the KMT dredged tunnels deep into a hill on the outskirts of Taipei for the artifacts’ safekeeping. The National Palace Museum was eventually built at the base of the hill and, after opening in 1965, began exhibiting the collection to the public.
Museum staff at work, as parts of the imperial collection was temporarily
stored in a cave outside of Taichung. Credit: Chuang Ling/National Palace Museum
Museum’s political significance
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 to be the most valuable parts of the Palace Museum’s collection. Possessing these objects positioned the party as the custodian of Chinese culture and strengthened its claim of being China’s legitimate government, according to Hsu Ya-hwei, an art history professor at National Taiwan University.
One of Taiwan’s National Palace Museum’s most famous artifacts is the Jadeite Cabbage. Credit: Koji Sasahara/AP
Hsu added that this position grew more prominent during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when large swathes of China’s heritage were destroyed in Mao Zedong’s campaign against the “Four Olds”: old 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.
“War has brought these artifacts to Taiwan,” he added. “It falls on us to protect these legacies that are invaluable to human civilizations.”