China's Ancient Treasures Go Digital

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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 tech 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.

Displaying Treasures

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. The original National Palace Museum was established in the Forbidden City, Beijing, in 1925, a year after the last Emperor of China was removed. A portion of his palace was opened to the public so all 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.

But the problem then, as now, is that the trove of art, books and documents is so vast that only a portion of the collection can be displayed at one time.

The National Palace Museum has the capacity to show about 3,000 to 4,000 pieces at a time. That's less than 1 percent of the collection. Most of the rest is stored in facilities below museum buildings, while the ceramics collection sits inside mountain tunnels behind the museum built to withstand bombing in the event of a skirmish between Taiwan and China.

Online Opportunity

The beauty of the online world is its unlimited space. Once the museum has all of its artifacts digitized and uploaded, it can present them at one time. But that will still take years and may involve some clever political maneuvering.

Thousands of items have yet to be added to the database, and while the artifacts, paintings and calligraphy may be finished in the next five years, the rare book collection is another story.

"It's much harder because so many documents are in use so much of the time by academic researchers," Lin said. Digitizing the books will take far longer than the rest of the collection.

There are also limits to who can view the artifacts on the Internet. The National Palace Museum's main Web site is blocked by China because it contains the address, labeling it a government site of Taiwan. The museum is working on allowing access through its .museum domain, but even that still sends users to the URL.

Someday, Lin hopes to find a place for the museum at the online digital world Second Life, but he's too busy now to look into it. His to-do list is long.

Political Disputes Intrude

There are other potential pitfalls of the digitization project. Beijing claims the artifacts and other items at the National Palace Museum were looted from China, and it wants them back. So displaying all of the items in the museum online will give Beijing a precise view of what treasures Taipei holds.

It's a thorny issue between the two governments. The National Palace Museum collection was spirited out of China by the Nationalist Army at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. From then, it was used as a political tool to claim the Nationalists were the rightful governors of China, and was a powerful enough propaganda weapon to prompt Beijing to open its own Palace Museum in the Forbidden City with remaining artifacts, donations and items found at more recent archeological digs.

"The collection represents Chinese heritage, Chinese traditional culture, and symbolized that Taipei had legitimacy," said Andrew Yang, an analyst at the Chinese Center for Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. But now, Beijing has replaced Taipei as the legitimate seat of government for the Chinese people in the United Nations and in much of the world's view. Only a handful of Central American and African nations continue to recognize Taipei, due in part to aid packages to those countries.

Taipei refuses to relinquish the collection to Beijing, asserting that much of the art at the museum would not have survived China's Cultural Revolution, which led to the destruction of much of its cultural heritage. Further complicating the political issue today is the fact that some in Taiwan want formal independence from China, and say the items in the National Palace Museum should be given back because they don't represent Taiwan's cultural heritage. China doesn't want Taiwan to break away, and has vowed to take the island by force if it declares independence.

Team Effort

Despite these issues, the digitization program continues. Hundreds of workers at museums, academic institutions and government offices in Taiwan are contributing to the National Digital Archives project. The research institute Academia Sinica, for example, is leading the software and database development effort, mainly using Linux and MySQL.

Back at the National Palace Museum, the entire IT division is involved, as are researchers and curators who have been photographing and scanning items into computers since 2001. The high resolution images they create are uploaded into the disk array once a week via a fiber optic line. The museum built an array with servers from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.

So far, nearly a third of the 69,000 antiquities owned by the museum, including jades, ceramics and bronzes, have been digitized, while 10,000 of the 11,000 paintings and calligraphy works are in the database. Less than 10 percent of the 650,000 items in the documents and rare books collection has been catalogued so far due to heavy use by researchers.

Technical Challenges

Content management and ease-of-use search are considered two of the most important elements of the project. Although most of the software developed for the archive is open source, some content management is done using Solaris, Oracle and Java, Lin said.

The hope is that the search capability of the database will allow users to find objects quickly no matter how they search -- by dynasty, artist, author, description or what have you. The head of Google Inc. in Taiwan worked on the National Digital Archives program before joining the search giant, and still helps with the effort.

Although it's hard to gauge the overall success of the project so far, Lin said the National Palace Museum Web site is gaining more attention. Three years ago, the site attracted 1.3 million users. Last year, that figure grew to 1.8 million, and in the first three months of this year, 1.5 million visitors toured the site.

Much of the new traffic is coming from the U.S., Lin said, attributing the rise to the Grand View exhibition in December, a three-month display of its rarest works launched to commemorate the completion of extensive renovations, as well as an award his team won at the American Association of Museums last year. Taiwan is on the forefront of such digital programs for museums, and his team has spent a lot of time trying to figure out ways to bring the collection to life and make the artifacts more appealing to people of all ages.

Their efforts are apparent on the museum's Web site. In one special section created for a rare, 1,000-year-old ceramic called Ju Ware, of which the museum holds 21 of the remaining 70 pieces in the world, visitors can "grasp" each piece using their mouse and rotate it to view all sides. Other sections boast short films, voice introductions and traditional music to set the mood.

"We want to change people's perceptions of museums," said Lin.

Catalogued So Far

Antiquities: Nearly one-third (22,000) complete of 69,000 items.

Painting & Calligraphy: Nearly complete; 10,000 of 11,000 items.

Documents and Rare books: Less than 10 percent complete because the 650,000 items are often in use.

To see the collection online or for more information visit:

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