Mention the word "museum" in connection with Taiwan, and one particular institution comes to mind: the National Palace Museum (NPM). This essential but often crowded and somewhat old-fashioned establishment is on the outskirts of Taipei, and displays the cream of a collection built up by emperors in China's Song Dynasty (960—1279) and their successors until the abdication of the last emperor in 1911. The NPM has almost 700,000 items; among its highlights are ancient jades, clocks presented to emperors by Western ambassadors, and delicate ink paintings. However, the NPM isn't the only worthwhile museum in Taiwan. The five establishments described below cover very different aspects of Taiwan; all have plentiful information in English as well as Chinese.
National Museum of Prehistory
Han Chinese began settling on Taiwan around 400 years ago. However, for thousands of years before their arrival, humans were living on the island. None of these groups developed a written form of their language, so almost all of their culture has been lost, and what is known about them has been pieced together from archelogical discoveries. The NMP in Taitung City goes into some detail about how Taiwan's several prehistoric cultures gathered food, built dwellings and buried their dead (face down in some cases). There are also displays about the elephants, rhinos, horses and other animals (life-sized models pictured above) which roamed Taiwan back when, tens of thousands of years ago, it was conjoined to Asian mainland because sea levels were lower.
National Museum of Taiwan History
Appropriately, the NMTH is located in Tainan, Taiwan's oldest city and former capital. Beginning with the island's very earliest human inhabitants, the NMTH goes on to explore in engrossing detail the 17th century (when the Dutch and Spanish established trading colonies), the 18th century (during which frequent uprisings convulsed local society), the 19th century (when Western traders made Taiwan part of the global economy, and missionaries planted churches), the 20th century (Taiwan began the century as a colony of Japan; suffered repression under Chiang Kai-shek; and emerged as Asia's most vibrant democracy after 1987) and the 21st century. The fiberglass figurines which help visitors imagine preindustrial lifestyles and religious practices are especially memorable.
If you don't have a strong interest in the local history, fauna and flora of Taiwan's Yilan County, you may not want to spend much time inside this newish museum (opened in 2010). However, if you're in the area do at least take in the striking exterior, one of award-winning architect Kris Yao's most distinctive works.
National Museum of Natural Science
Perhaps the best museum in central Taiwan, this landmark in Taichung City is a top-notch attraction for families. Permanent exhibitions focus on Taiwan's indigenous people, local folk religion, herbal medicine, Taiwan's fabulous ecological treasures, plus other topics. The NMNS's IMAX theater shows various documentaries in keeping with the museum's educational goals.
Taiwan Theater Museum
This small but superb museum, located in the center of Yilan City in northeast Taiwan, focuses on two traditional performing arts: opera, especially Taiwanese Opera, and puppetry. The collection of hand and string puppets (like the one pictured right) is exceptionally photogenic and features both legendary figures and puppets in modern clothing. Local amateur opera groups use the museum as a rehearsal space, so try to come on a weekend when you've a good chance of catching a practice session.
For general travel tips, also see 25 Things To Remember When Traveling To Taiwan.
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