Sunday, March 4, 2007

Guarding the treasures

Behind closed doors...I meant to post this story before I went on holiday - but too much of a mad rush.

Anyhow, I managed to get rare access to see the tunnels behind the newly renovated National Palace Museum last month.

The museum has one of the most important collections of Chinese art treasures and objects in the world. Most of the objects were collected by China’s ancient emperors and held in what later became known as the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

But, on the orders of Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, the treasures were carefully packed and moved out in 1933, and transported around China to protect them from advancing Japanese troops; and later, from damage during the civil war.

For many of the best pieces in the collection, the epic journey ended 16 years later, when more than 3000 crates were shipped to Taiwan, as the Nationalists fled to the island after losing the Chinese civil war.

Some crates were reportedly left on the the Nationalists were fleeing China and didnt have time to put them all on the ships.

The museum’s collection is so vast that only about 1% can ever shown at any one time. But it carefully guards its treasures.

Some of them - mainly ceramics are kept in steel crates - in two tunnels cut into the mountainside at the back of the museum.

To get to see them, I was accompanied by senior museum staff and security officials. We went through three sets of elaborately sealed and locked doors.

Inside, the tunnel was lined by steel crates, and seemed to snake endlessly into the distance.

There were also some clearly battered wooden crates - the originals used to ship the treasures from China.

Most of the people who made the journey with the treasures have passed away. Luckily, my friend Joy helped me get in touch with some people who could help me interview one survivor and leaf through some historic photos from that time.

Its such an amazing story. I felt privileged to discover more about the past. Here's my full story on the bbc website


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