Pieces of the Peninsula: British Museum Turns to the East

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Pieces of the Peninsula: British Museum Turns to the East

"Knowing about the culture of a country helps you to understand its present situation and its people," said Janet Portal, the curator of the Korea Foundation Gallery at the British Museum's Department of Oriental Antiquities.

Visiting the Korean Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in Seoul last week, Ms. Portal was introducing the Korea Gallery and the "enterprise" of bringing Korea's long and illustrious history to the London museum and its 6 million yearly visitors.

The Korea Gallery opened there last November, presenting the rich tradition of Korea's ceramics alongside its metalworks, sculpture, paintings and illuminated manuscripts. Though Korea plays an important role in international relations, much of the world is unaware of its long cultural traditions.

"We try to show the cultural differences between China, Japan and Korea as well as the interlinks," Ms. Portal said. "People are very happy with it."

One of the most popular features of the gallery is the re-creation of a sarangbang, or the main room of a traditional Korean house that gentlemen used for studying and for welcoming guests.

By contrast, the inner room, the anbang, was the women's domain and was used for domestic work such as sewing. The layout of old Korean houses reflected the Confucian principle of separating the sexes.

The sarangbang at the museum was built by Korean craftsmen using traditional tools and techniques and even traditional clothes. It took them two weeks to build the fine combination of craftsmanship and architecture. The sarangbang will most likely be the central feature for visitors to the gallery, giving a feeling of everyday life in the Korea of centuries ago.

Throughout the Korea gallery, displays show the gamut of Korean art: a wooden sutra box inlaid with mother-of-pearl, water droppers shaped like fruits and vegetables, tobacco and powder pots, hats, fans and illuminated manuscripts, some of which detail Buddha's life.

"Koreans loved white and plain jars, and there is a special Korean way of decorating," Ms. Portal said.

It is this style of discreet yet strong decoration that has attracted admirers from all over the world to Korea's ceramics. One of the highlights of the Korea Gallery is the 17th century "Full-Moon" jar.

This white porcelain piece from the Choson period is respected for its irregularity: Turning it in your hands, its shape seems to change in a simple and natural way. The jar was acquired in Korea in 1935 by the pioneering British potter Bernard Leach. At the beginning of World War II he asked the well-known Austrian-born potter Lucie Rie in a letter to "look after this pot," and later sent it to her. The Full-Moon stayed with her until recently.

Like the personal story of the asymmetrical pot, the histories of many of the other pieces at the gallery are provided. Indeed, many of the artifacts on exhibit have been collected through the years by diplomats, missionaries, businessmen and seafarers. As a result, the Korea Gallery also stands as a history of foreign people traveling through and living in Korea.

But the number of works on display at the gallery is still limited, Ms. Portal said. A special Korean law bars the export of artifacts that are more than 600 years old, prohibiting the donation by Koreans of pieces beyond that cutoff.

"There should be a special rule allowing museums to import Korean artifacts, since it would be good for Korea as well as for the British Museum of course," she said, smiling.

"We would like to build on the Korea Gallery to show and teach more about Korean history and culture."

A virtual tour of the Korean Foundation Gallery is available at www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

by Sonja Ernst

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