Taiwan’s museum ‘for the poor’ home to world’s largest violin collection

CNN  — 

“You play the piano? Look at this – a violin by the inventor of the piano, made in 1705,” says Dai-Ting Chung, senior consultant for the Chimei Museum’s violins collection.

He points at a shelf dedicated to Bartolomeo Cristofori, the Italian instrument maker who created the piano while working for the Uffizi administration of the Medici family of Italian nobles, inside a heavily secured temperature and humidity controlled vault.

This private museum in Taiwan’s southern province of Tainan is home to the world’s biggest and most comprehensive violin collection.

The violin made by Cristofori is one of the more impressive finds among the museum’s collection of 1,376 string instruments.

“We waited for six years before we found this,” says Chung.

A violin maker himself, Chung’s in charge of bringing most of the collections to the museum.

“There are only three string instruments made by Cristofori left in the world now – one in Uffizi [museum in Florence, Italy] and two in Chimei – a cello and a violin.”

A museum for all

A violin-lover himself, Shi Wen-long has built the world's biggest violin collection at Chimei Museum.

Founded in 1992 by Shi Wen-long, one of the richest self-made businessmen in Taiwan and founder of Chi Mei Corporation, the Chimei Museum was housed inside a company administration building before it was relocated to Tainan Metropolitan Park in 2014.

Open to the public, it features collections of awe-inspiring Western arts, natural history, arms and armors, antiquities and artifacts, and, obviously, a must-see musical instruments section.

Unlike some private collectors who gather impressive artworks and relics based on their own tastes, Shi started accumulating items to fulfill his dream to build a museum for everyone.

Born in 1928, Shi grew up during wartime in a poor family of 10 children. His only escape was a small local museum in Tainan.

“It was like a heaven for a child in wartime,” says Patricia Liao, Chimei Museum Foundation’s deputy director.

“He thought when he had a chance, he wanted to build a museum for all, especially the underprivileged. This museum, therefore, wasn’t built to collect arts that can be sold for a better price.

“He built it with this idea in mind: to bring Western arts and culture here. It’s for those who don’t have a chance to travel and see museums abroad.”

The museum charges TWD200 ($6.50) to enter but is free for Tainan residents and students so “the farmers working in the fields nearby can visit all the time.

The world’s biggest and most complete violin collection

Chimei Museum offers an immersive lesson.

The museum, resembling a European palace, sits inside a splendid garden filled with sculptures and replicas.

The space now exhibits about 4,000 works – only one-third – of the museum’s entire collection.

Its curation reflects Shi’s mission to offer a museum for all.

Entering the Fine Arts Hall, a few famous portrayals of Madonna and child hang just inches away from each other.

“Other museums may reserve a whole wall to an important work but what we want most is to paint an overall picture for people who haven’t had an idea yet,” says Liao.

“Shi thinks it would be a shame to keep these works in storage instead of displaying them for everyone. That’s a very packed exhibition compared to other art museums.”

Notable displays include Spanish painter El Greco’s “Saint Martin and the Beggar,” French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye’s “Theseus Fighting the Centaur Bianor” and more than 1,600 pieces of arms and armor.

Its violin collection is an attraction in its own right.

But its most spectacular display remains its musical instrument collection.

Shi is a passionate violinist himself – he once started a business during the war extracting scrap metal from abandoned battleships and fighter jets to make strings for violins.

Chimei Museum is home to the world’s oldest playable cello (dated back to 1566) by the renowned luthier Andrea Amati.

Chimei also has valuable works by the Stradivari and Guarneri families, the two other most established violin-making clans in the world, including Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù’s “Ole Bull” – one of the most expensive and well-known violins.

“These two were by Gasparo Da Salo – those you usually read about from books. They’re really rare in the world – only six left,” says Chung.

“We don’t aim to collect the most valuable and celebrated violins but ones that have an important role to play in completing the history of string instruments.”

String instruments aside, the museum also offers a family-friendly mechanical instrument performance and an immersive walk-in orchestra performance.

History keeper

Violin consultant Chung Dai-Ting says he's just a keeper of history.

Thanks to its collection, Chimei’s become a popular meeting place for violin conferences, including the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM) and International Association of Violin and Bow Makers (EILA).

“The grandson of Carl Becker came to see his grandfather’s work,” says Chung, recounting some of the violin makers he’s welcomed. “Morassi’s son and grandson came here. His grandson’s now 18 and has just started making violins, too.”

“It’s the only place where violin makers can huddle and study over 100 different violins closely at once.

“Chimei’s like an uber-busy violin information center. Our database is widely considered as the most comprehensive in the world – more than Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

“We help people who need information from book publishers to researchers who want to see a label inside a certain violin.”

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There’s also a Chimei Arts Award, set up to support local talent.

Some 200 free violins have been lent to students and musicians who may not be able to afford his or her own or need one for a special performance.

“The program offers a win-win-win situation: The talent gets to use a good violin. It helps his/her family financially. It allows a good violin to be heard,” says Liao.

“If these violins aren’t used, they’re mere blocks of wood.”

The most famous borrower? Yo-Yo Ma, who needed a loan when his cello broke before a Taiwan show.

Young Taiwanese violinist Tseng Yu-chien also used a violin from Chimei when he became the first Taiwanese to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition.

“This is like a violin dreamland – where all your violin fantasies come true,” says Chung.

“After taking up this job, the biggest feeling is that I’m only standing at one spot in the mighty current of history. So it’s stressful, too – these violins are a few hundred years old and you’re only a passerby and a keeper in history.”

Chimei Museum, 66, Section 2, Wenhua Road, Rende District, Tainan City, Taiwan; opens Thursday to Tuesday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.