Travel in Taiwan Museums

Shung Ye Museum Formosan Aborigines

By Stephanie Ho, Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung



The Shung Ye Museum captivates passers by with its exotic exterior, embellished with an aboriginal flavor.



This Yami boat, displayed in the ground-floor hall, takes at least three years to build and requires different kinds of wood for its different parts.
Austronesian people began to arrive in Taiwan around 6,000 years ago, giving rise to the indigenous culture that still exists in the Central Mountain Range and along the eastern coastal areas of the island. Among the 19 tribes remaining nowadays, nine have managed to preserve their distinct customs and languages relatively well. These nine tribes are the Saisiat, Atayal, Tsou, Bunun, Ami, Rukai, Puyuma, Paiwan, and Yami.

The brand-new Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines houses a refined collection of 1,000 artifacts, mainly from these nine tribes. First of its kind in Taiwan, the museum is also dedicated to preserving indigenous culture and enhancing understanding among the different ethnic groups.

Situated diagonally opposite the world-famous National Palace Museum, the Shung Ye Museum captivates passers-by with its exotic exterior: a huge trapeziform glass wall that imparts to the four-story building a very modern appearance, a white totem pole that bisects the facade and shale pillars that are erected at the four corners help to highlight the theme of the museum, and wooden tribal carvings selected from a previous museum-held competition that are now posted around the sides.



This slate buttress of the Paiwan house, apart from supporting the roof and walls, makes access to the roof possible.

Once they step into the building, visitors will notice immediately the museum has been carefully planned. In the center of the ground-floor hall is a large model of Taiwan with geographical features clearly shown. The model is studded with tiny electric lights which, when turned on, mark the locations of different indigenous settlements. Moreover, wall monitors are used to give visitors a comprehensive introduction to the origins of the tribes and the natural environment in which they live. A four-meter Yami fishing boat and a Paiwan stone tablet measuring 250 cm by 94 cm are also displayed in the hall. The Yami people, living on the outlying Lanyu or Orchid Island, southeast of Taiwan, are skillful fishermen. It takes at least three years to build a Yami boat, which requires different kinds of wood for its different parts. Before beginning their job, Yami boat-builders make sacrifices and pray to their gods. The Paiwan stone tablet, featuring a "hundred-pacer" snake (considered a sacred creature), a sorceress, and hunters, depicts a scene of hunting divination.


Since pottery making has become a lost art among the Paiwan, these pots are among the museum's most vaulable possessions.

The second floor is designed to introduce the daily life of the aborigines. Close to the entrance are two large showcases containing models of a Yami residence and a Tsou men's house, which was used for military training and social gathering. There are also a life-sized Ami hearth and a Paiwan house of slate slabs. The low entrances of the house, a protective feature, force visitors to bend when entering, leaving themselves vulnerable to attack. Slate buttresses, apart from supporting the roof and walls, make access to the roof possible. Also on display are pottery, wickers, weaving and hunting tools, weapons, and other objects, including musical instruments like the Paiwan nose flute and the four-note (re, mi, so, and la) Atayal xylophone, which in addition to making music, was used to send messages. Nine Paiwan pots are placed opposite the entrance. Divided into male (more precious) and female, these pots represent wealth and inheritance. A male pot is differentiated from a female one by the "hundred-pacer" snake decoration. Since pottery making has become a lost art among the Paiwan, these pots are among the museum's most valuable possessions. The brightly lit third floor is for display of aboriginal costumes, textiles, embroideries, ornaments, and bead-works. Among the costumes exhibited are mourning clothes of the Paiwan and Rukai, most of which are in red, orange, yellow, and green and sewed in elaborate patterns. (It is difficult to associate them with death though!). Before wool thread was introduced by the Chinese, the aborigines used ramie in weaving. Beadwork, found only with the Paiwan, Rukai, and Puyuma, is closely linked with the owner's social status and tribal system, and is rich in religious significance--it is believed to be able to bring either blessings and protection or bad luck and punishment from the gods. Also on display are replicas of the tools used for tattooing together with an explanation on the subject. Most tribes--exceptions are the Yami and Bunun--have their own tattooing customs; for instance, only respected Atayal women could have tattoos on both cheeks, and their male counterparts on their lower foreheads and chests.

In the first basement level, a large area is devoted to explaining the aborigines' belief systems and exhibiting their sacrificial objects such as cups and the ornately carved wooden boxes used for divination. Also included here are daggers and spears used by the Yami people to exorcize evil spirits, and Paiwan knives made of bronze--an alloy not produced on the island in the old days, and so of utmost value to both the museum and archeologists in their research. In addition, the custom of head-hunting is explained here. It was connected with tribal honor and was used to prove the innocence of a wrongly accused person, and a head that was taken had to be worshipped so that its divine power could join that of the hunter's ancestors in protecting their descendants.

There are also an auditorium and an exhibition center on this level. Short films on weaving, pottery, and songs and dances, as well as general introduction, are shown in the auditorium every day during opening hours. Special exhibitions are held twice a year, in spring and autumn; currently showing are 200 photos on aborigines taken by a Japanese anthropologist from 1896 to 1900.

The museum grants scholarships and awards to aborigines and local scholars for the study of indigenous cultures and provides funding for research programs at overseas universities. Apart from all this, the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborgines also encourages aborigines to produce art works and continue breathing new life into their own culture.

Notes

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Mondays. On weekends and holidays, a guided tour in English is offered at 3:30 p.m. (The museum can arrange for extra English guided tours if booking is made in advance.) Admission: NT$150 for adults, NT$80 for group members, and NT$100 for students. An English-language guidebook will be available in the next few months.

Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines : 282 Chihshan Rd., Sec. 2, Shihlin district, Taipei; Tel: (02) 841-2611


Travel in Taiwan Museums
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