By Jintana Panyaarvudh
GROWING up during wartime in a poor family with 10 siblings and a father who had been out of work for 17 years, Shi Wen-Long’s only escape from the daily grind was a tiny museum near his house in Taiwan’s southern province of Tainan.
He was able to spend time there because admission was free.
So grateful was he to the owners of that sanctuary that Shi dreamt of one day making enough money to build a “museum for all” just like the one in which he spent so much of his childhood.
The 91-year-old Taiwanese billionaire, who made his fortune by founding and building up the petrochemical company Chi Mei Group, one of Asia’s largest plastics businesses, made his dream come true.
The Apollo Fountain in front of Chimei Museum /Photo courtesy of Chimei Museum Foundation
“My museum serves only one purpose – to exist for the public,” writes the billionaire who was ranked no 23 among Forbes’ Taiwan’s 50 Richest People last year, on the museum’s website.
First established and housed in the administration building of the Chi Mei Corporation back in 1992, the museum was relocated to the Tainan Metropolitan Park in 2014, and reopened in 2015.
From the outside, the structure, which houses the country’s largest privately owned collection of treasures, resembles a European museum. It sits inside a wonderful garden filled with sculptures and replicas.
“If you look out of the door from here [the main hall] you will see the Apollo Fountain that imitates the one in Versailles Palace's garden,” says Sheryl Lai, as she guides us around the museum.
Items on display include Western paintings created between the 13th to 20th century. /Photo courtesy of Chimei Museum Foundation
The collection at Chimei Museum is made up of about 4,000 items, mainly Western arts, musical instruments, weaponry and natural history, representing about one-third of the entire Chimei collection.
“A lot of people in Taiwan ask us why we collect mostly Western artworks instead of Chinese or Taiwanese,” says Patricia Liao, deputy director of Chimei Museum Foundation.
“The reason is because the founder said that for poor people like him, it would be very difficult to travel to United States, United Kingdom, Italy or France to see all these different works.”
The works reflect the founder’s various personal interests, she adds.
On the first floor, one room is dedicated to an exhibition of animal taxidermy and fossils and mirrors Shi’s hobby of fishing.
Photo courtesy of Chimei Museum Foundation
In this exhibition, diverse and dynamic life forms are presented with the evolutionary progress after several significant extinction events and environmental changes that took place on Earth. History is another favourite, so a second room on the same floor exhibits arms and armour divided up into European and non-European sections to better display the crafting techniques, adornment style and cultural characteristics of these weapons.
The Arms and Armour room displays weaponry from all over the world. /Photo courtesy of Chimei Museum Foundation
“The most advanced technology in any era is usually a weapon and by studying that weapon you can understand history and how human technology, our civilisation, and our values developed,” Liao explains.
Exhibition rooms on the second floor reflect the billionaire’s fondness for the arts and music.
Shi loves to paint and has amassed a huge collection of paintings, Liao explains.
Shi Wenlong is passionate about playing the violin./Photo courtesy of Chimei Museum Foundation
Part of his collection, ranging from the 13th to the 20th century, is displayed at the Fine Arts room on this floor. The paintings are displayed in chronological order, allowing visitors to follow the path of Western art development. A violin-lover and amateur concert violinist, Shi owns one of the world’s largest collections of instruments in the violin family and is the proud owner of more than 1,370 of them.
He has built one of the biggest and most comprehensive violin collections in the world at Chimei Museum.
The walkin orchestra in the violin exhibition room is designed for visitors to enjoy listening to various instruments during artists’ performance./ Photo courtesy of Chimei Museum Foundation
Among them are the world’s oldest playable cello crafted by the founder of the Cremona tradition of luthiers, Andrea Amati circa 1566, “Carlo IX”, a violin made by Antonio Stradivari in 1709, the “Viotti-Marie Hall” as well as The Ole Bull’s violin, crafted by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu in 1744.
While these precious instruments are not on display in the Violin Exhibit room, visitors can admire selected masterpieces from the Chimei collection of various family lines and regions in a special showcase.
The display area travels thorough time and space to represent the earliest instruments of the violin family, displaying those that best depict the origins of violin making in various countries and the amazing craftsmanship of the master luthiers who made the greatest impact. A highly appreciated area in this exhibition is an immersive walk-in orchestra performance where visitors can sit or walk around and enjoy listening to music played by artists on screens while the real musical instruments used in the performance are on display beside.
Sculpture Hall /Photo courtesy of Chimei Museum Foundation
In another philanthropic gesture, the museum also lends the instruments free of charge for one year or more to young talents, students and musicians who may need one for studying or performing.
“Sometimes talented musicians may not grow up in a rich family. In these cases, either the family suffers because they are trying to bring out the talent of the child or the child’s talent has to be |sacrificed because the family cannot afford [the violin],” Liao explains.
The museum currently has more than 220 violins on loan to students and violinists who need to pay for a premium of insurance fee.
The museum has indeed fulfilled its founder’s mission as well as his stated philosophy – “Good works of art are not to be kept just for oneself to enjoy, but to be shared with the public.
“And a good collection should not reflect just the collector’s personal tastes, but tailor to common tastes and have enough variety for everyone to find something to enjoy and appreciate.”
Something for Everyone
Chimei Museum is at 66, Sec 2, Wenhua Rd., Rende Dist, Tainan City, Taiwan.
It’s open from Thursday to Tuesday from 9.30am to 5.30pm.
Admission is free for residents of Tainan and TWD 200 (Bt200) for everyone else.