Digitizing the largest museum collection

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01 Jun 2007 (Computerworld Singapore/Malaysia) – It’s a massive undertaking, but one that will be welcomed by anyone interested in the art and archaeology of China. The National Palace Museum of Taiwan is seeking to digitise its massive collection – taken out of China in 1949 to prevent its destruction – into an online database. China is a key reference point in understanding the archaeology of Southeast Asia. For example, the diffusion of metalworking technologies during in neolithic mainland Southeast Asia is inexplicanly linked to Chinese styles. The existence of many Southeast Asian polities (Srivijaya, Funan and Chitu for example) are cross-referenced to Chinese records of tributes and emmisaries received in the Chinese court. Chinese ceramics are common finds in Southeast Asia excavations and shipwrecks, and important in providing a dating reference.

Ancient China’s treasures go digital

The largest and most valuable collection of ancient Chinese art and artifacts in the world is being entered into the digital universe in Taiwan by museum curators and IT managers intent on freeing it from its physical boundaries.

The goal is to make the massive collection available on the Internet. Researchers will be able to find rare documents in an easy-to-use database, teachers will be able to download information and images they can use in course work, and visitors will enjoy vivid exhibitions, films, music, access to favorite works of art and virtual tours.

“The culture effect is more important than the technology. We’re trying to give people a warm feeling about these artifacts. We want the human touch,” said James Lin, director of the information management center at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

The initiative is part of Taiwan’s government-funded National Digital Archives program and it aims to do for the treasures of China what was first done in 1925 — open them to the world. This time, however, it will display the museum’s treasures on a far grander scale. When the last Emperor of China was deposed in 1925, part of his Forbidden City was turned into a museum so the public could view the treasures collected there. It was meant to signify the turn to a republican government, in which all took part and no single person held special privilege over the artifacts.

No details on when exactly the database will be up, although I expect it will be quite a while before something comes up. There’s all sorts of politics involved (between China and Taiwan) over ownership of the artefacts too. You can read more about the proposed attempt to digitise the collections of the National Palace Museum.

Wondering about Chinese material culture showing up in Southeast Asia? Here are some sources:
Art & Archaeology of Fu Nan by J. C. Khoo
Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals by P. Y. W. Chuen and W. Weng
The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia (Cambridge World Archaeology) by C. Higham
Chinese Celadons and Other Related Wares in Southeast Asia by the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society