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Art, Culture and Candy: The Small Museums of Taipei

Summer heat hits hard in this city just a few degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer, offering to residents and visitors alike compelling evidence that daylight hours are best spent in air conditioned climes.  For the culturally inclined traveler, Taipei offers few better ways to beat the heat than several leisurely-paced days on the city's vibrant museum scene. That Taipei boasts several internationally respected museums is well known.  Less publicized is the fact that Taipei is home to a bevy of smaller, decidedly more obscure places of culture.  Some are obscure because their narrow focus naturally attracts a smaller audience; others are just plain small.

One museum that revels in the minuscule is Nanjing East Road's Miniatures Museum of Taiwan (MMoT). In this private museum dedicated to the art of minute craftsmanship you'll find a host of ornate miniaturized items, from a working postage-stamp sized television set to a 40-bulb chandelier small enough to be inhaled.  Fully-furnished palaces scaled down to minute proportions are just some of the items at the MMoT that will leave visitors marveling at what can be achieved by artisans with supernaturally dexterous digits and way too free much.

A short hop away sits another Taipei museum devoted to meticulous craftsmanship. Operated by a group of artisans and performers with generation-spanning experience in the world of Taiwanese puppetry, the Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum has four floors of exhibits and attractions devoted to puppetry and an attached theater where performances are held. Perhaps the coolest part of the museum is the workshop, where visitors can watch puppets being produced by the artists themselves.

Those looking for more serious pursuits should head west a few MRT stops to Taiwan's Museum of World Religions (MoWR). A strong contender for the title of 'world's serenest museum,'   MoWR takes visitors through a series of integrated and multi-dimensional exhibitions designed to illustrate the philosophies, ceremonies, rituals and cultures of ten of the world's major religions. Highlights include scale models of some of the world's most sacred religious sites, most of which can be visited virtually via tiny, movable cameras located inside the models themselves. Though founded by a Buddhist order, the stated goal of the museum is not to promote any one faith, but to build harmony by showing the commonality of all faiths.

But lengthy exposure to high levels of earnest spirituality can prove a bit heavy for some. What better antidote to restore internal balance than something light and sweet; a museum devoted entirely to candy, perhaps?  If you're expecting to see a Taiwanese Willy Wonka surrounded by Asian Oompah-loompahs at the Taiwan Nougat Museum, (TNM) you may come away disappointed.  Still, the candy factory / museum in Taipei's far-Western suburb of Tucheng is a tasty diversion, especially for those with a serious sweet teeth (and good dental plans). The family-run operation contains two floors of exhibits centering around the sticky confection, including the world’s biggest chunk of nougat (covered in edible gold, naturally).  There's also a number of multimedia presentations about nougat, and a special factory-walk through in which visitors can watch candy and wedding cakes (the museum / factory's other main product...after all, how much nougat can one country consume?) being made. 

While TNM is probably best enjoyed by kids (or diabetics with a death wish), the National Taiwan Science Education Center (NTSEC), though billed as a children's museum, is cool enough to make travelers without children consider borrowing a friend's kid for the day just to have an excuse for going.  It's here at the NTSEC, located just a few blocks north of the famous Shilin night market, where adults and children alike will find a plethora of interactive exhibits guaranteed to thrill as they enlighten.  There's the hall of anatomy, featuring a walk-through digestive tract (you enter through the mouth; we'll leave it to you to figure out where you exit), a series of exhibits devoted to zoology, including a cat-head shaped helmet that bestows on the wearer feline hearing powers, and several hours worth of assorted hands-on exhibits that kids aged six to sixty should enjoy.

But for a balanced mix of educational and just plain strange, you need to head north.  It's up in Danshui's own left-bank town of Bali where you'll find one of Taipei county's newer and most well-laid out museums, the Shihsanheng Museum of Archaeology (SMoA).  With architectural design reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright, SMoA has exhibits on the archaeological history of Taiwan’s earliest residents, charting the origins and movements of the various tribal people's who inhabited the Isle Formosa long millennia before the first Han settlers had ever laid eyes on the island.  Interactive installations chart the island's indigenous culture from pre-history to the present day, and children will enjoy checking out the display containing dated but still-deadly aboriginal weaponry.

Having engaged in scholarly pursuits, head back across the river to enjoy some cultural bubblegum; it's on the cobblestone pedestrian mall of Gongming street where you'll find the Believe it or Not Museum.  Though not necessarily affiliated with Ripley's, this apartment-sized museum is stuffed with bric-a-brac designed to make your inner carnival geek salivate.  Be honest:  who hasn't dreamed of having their picture taken with a majestic stuffed albino gorilla or gazing in wonder at a two-headed calf pickled in brine? Though mostly family oriented, the museum also has a back section dedicated to exhibits of a decidedly adult nature (not that anyone's checking IDs), including wooden Qing-era novelties designed for making whoopee, and spike-lined steel chastity belts for preventing it.

Even after experienced everything the aforementioned museums have to offer, the discriminating Taipei traveler may still want to spend an extra day visiting some of Taipei's more 'established' museums.  An afternoon's stroll through Taiwan's most renowned (and recently-renovated-at-great-cost) National Palace Museum - with its vast collection of ancient, priceless treasures spanning five millennia of Chinese history - should provide just the right counterpoint to ensure a well rounded cultural education. Stuffed gorillas, miniaturized Vaticans and gigantic blocks of gold-encrusted nougat aside, diversity, after all, is the hallmark of any serious cultural journey.

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Fact File:

Believe it or Not Museum

No. 67, Gongming St., Tamsui Town, Taipei 251, Taiwan. Tel: 886-2-2623-3140. Fax: 886-2-2623-3121.

Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum

79, Xining north Road, Taipei 103, Taiwan. Tel: 886-2-2556-8909.

Miniatures Museum of Taiwan (MMoT)

No. 96, Sec. 1, Jianguo N. Rd., Taipei 104, Taiwan. Tel: 886-2-2515-0583. Fax: 886-2-2515-2713. E-mail: mmot@ms24.hinet.net

Museum of World Religions (MoWR)

7F, No 236, Sec.1 Jhongshan Rd., Yonghe City, Taipei 234, Taiwan. Tel: 886-2-8231-6118. Fax: 886-2-8231-5966. E-mail: ming@mwr.org.tw

National Palace Museum

No. 221, Sec. 2, Zhishan Rd., Taipei 111, Taiwan. Tel: 886-2-2881-2021. Fax: 886-2-2882-1440. E-mail: service@npm.gov.tw 

National Taiwan Science Education Center (NTSEC)

No. 189, Shishang Rd., Shilin Dist., Taipei 111, Taiwan. Tel: 886-2-6610-1234. Fax: 886-2-6611-8500.

Shihsanheng Museum of Archaeology (SMoA)

No.200, Museum Rd., Bali Township, Taipei, Taiwan. Tel: 886-2-2619-1313.

Taiwan Nougat Museum (TNM)

No. 31-2, Zihciang Street, Tucheng City, Taipei, Taiwan. Tel: 886-2-22687222. Fax: 886-2-22685822.

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Published on 3/22/09

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