The Landscape of Historical Memory: The Politics of Museums and Memorial Culture in Post-Martial Law Taiwan

By Kirk A. Denton

Reviewed by James Flath

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2021)

Kirk A. Denton. The Landscape of Historical Memory: The Politics of Museums and Memorial Culture in Post-Martial Law Taiwan Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2021. 284 pp. ISBN: 978-988-8528-57-8 (hardback).

Following his previous study of museums in China (Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in China, 2014), Kirk Denton has extended his analysis to the museums of Taiwan. As in the former volume, the author is interested in the evolution of exhibition space and the ways in which historical narratives are shaped by present-day politics. However, whereas Chinese museums seem to be caught up in the ambiguity of belonging to a neoliberal state burdened with a communist history, Taiwan museums offer a master class in how to construct a pluralistic national identity.

Taiwan is a uniquely interesting case because the citizens of that island are intensely concerned about their identity and with positioning themselves in relation to their gigantic neighbor. During the Cold War, Taiwan’s few but notable historical museums followed the Guomindang (KMT) mandate of promoting reunification with the mainland and identifying Taiwan as the “real” China. That “blue” mandate continues to influence museum culture, but Denton explains how in post-martial law Taiwan the museum culture has grown to include the nativist “green” mandate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). As Taiwan’s government changes hands, the “national” museums and memorial spaces adjust their narratives—sometimes in ways that seem intended to infuriate the opposition, but often in ways that accommodate diverse points of view.

Some places are obvious sites of conflict. Anything having a connection with Chiang Kai-shek (Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Two Chiang’s Culture Park), the 2-28 Incident (Taipei 2-28 Memorial Peace Park and Memorial Hall, National 2-28 Memorial Museum) or the “White Terror” (White Terror Memorial Park/Ching Mei Human Rights Culture Park) has and will be used to vocally criticize the KMT and advance the cause of DPP nativism. However, Denton shows how politically contentious sites can also generate consensus. The Lei Zhen Memorial Hall, dedicated to a prominent dissident, provided Ma Ying-jeou the opportunity to apologize for his party’s oppressive past. The Green Island Prison, while holding painful memories of an era of persecution, is also linked to the National Museum of Human Rights and is used to promote bi-partisan values of peace, reconciliation, and transitional justice.

Denton explains how other spaces are deployed more subtly to emphasise either a connection to China or an independent Taiwanese culture. The Taipei branch of the National Palace Museum was constructed under the KMT in the 1960s and is devoted almost entirely to classical Chinese culture. The southern branch of the museum was commissioned under the DPP and situates Taiwan art and culture in a modern global context. Military dependents’ villages are interpreted as sites of nostalgia and a link to the mainland for those who arrived in Taiwan after 1949. Meanwhile, archaeology museums seek the roots of Taiwan in an ancient past free of Chinese influence, and aboriginal museums emphasize Austronesian culture and the heritage of peoples who lived independent of China for thousands of years. Even museums and historical sites that do not have an obvious connection to the blue-green political divide are read against the background of politics. The Baimi Clog Museum promotes local culture, and eco-museums such as the Lanyang Museum in Yilan help promote a connection with the local landscape. “To be a proud Yilaner,” Denton suggests, “is to be a proud Taiwanese” (207). On the other hand, the Museum of World Religions and the National Human Rights Museum are global in orientation and in that way also negate the pull of Chinese culture. So, one might say that to be a proud globalist is to be a proud Taiwanese. It seems that the museum culture is full of contradictions, but contradictions are, after all, the warp and weft of Taiwan’s multicultural fabric.

One of Denton’s more interesting findings, in my view, is the extent to which Taiwan’s museums connect with counterparts in Canada. Canada and Taiwan are different in every way except one—both are geographically linked to a superpower and consequently struggle to maintain cultural independence. Canada asserts itself by being nice. If Canada’s national narrative is to be believed, it is a multicultural, democratic, peace loving (formerly peace keeping) nation that values human rights and holds a deep connection with the land. Taiwan cannot afford to be quite so nice with respect to its superpower neighbor, but Denton points out the many ways in which Taiwan has, through museums, begun to emphasise a commitment to multiculturalism, democracy, peace, human rights, and a connection with the land. And like Canada, Taiwan has learned to appropriate its aboriginal peoples for narrative effect. The implication is that these are not natural, organic, or normative cultural values, but consciously chosen survival strategies.

Is it possible for a Taiwan museum to just be a museum? There are many museums on Taiwan, and Denton cannot be expected to cover them all. Still, one wonders how the Soya-Mixed Meat Museum fits into the historical landscape? The Republic of Chocolate (巧克力共和國) is perhaps hinting at something, but what about the Teng Feng Fish Ball Museum, the Mei-hwa Spinning Top Museum, or the Wu Tao Chishang Lunch Box Cultural History Museum? What is the role of commercialism in museum development? How, moreover, do people really interact with museum exhibits, and what do they take away from the places that they visit? Denton raises some of these questions in his epilogue, although he does not attempt to answer them. Instead, he doubles down on the thesis that he has been working on throughout the text—that both the blue and green camps invest heavily in museums because they understand that the future of Taiwan hinges on the landscape of historical memory. It is a good argument, and the clarity of Denton’s discussion makes the book a strong contribution to the Taiwan studies field, as well as museum studies in general.

James Flath
Western University