The heritage keepersBuyeo, South Chungcheong ― Past the main gate of the Korean National University of Cultural Heritage, the traditional and modern converge in surprising harmony.
Most of the large buildings on the grounds appear modern, with cement and steel exteriors and large glass windows. But touches of ancient life, such as a hanok, a Korean courtyard house, and dozens of 18th century granite stone statues are also scattered about.
This juxtaposition of old and new sums up the mission of this college, surrounded by rice paddies on the flatlands near Buyeo, the former Baekje dynasty capital.
The school opened three years ago with the backing of the government’s Cultural Properties Administration, with the mission to train experts in cultural preservation. This ranges from someone who can recreate the layout of a palace to those skilled at preserving crowns, jewels or texts of the ancients.
The 420 students enrolled at this four-year college delve into the theory and art of preserving, restoring ― and perpetuating ― Korea’s cultural heritage.
The 15 hectare (38 acre) campus also sits near the Baekjae Historical Restoration complex, an ambitious project by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to recreate a slice of ancient Korean life.
There’s a quaint stillness to the grounds ― hardly any students are strolling about ― making one wonder if this is indeed a school. The bustling sounds of chatting students or noisy music from the dorms are absent.
“We only have a small student body, plus this is a very rural part of the district,” school official Tae Gyu-ok explains. The student body has grown, however, from 40 the first year.
The curriculum is a blend of classroom lectures and hands-on experience. Students are often honing their craft making or preservation skills or traveling to historical sites or archaeological excavations.
In this morning’s “Introduction to Traditional Industrial Arts” class, about 30 juniors listen attentively to a presentation on the diverging styles of the hanbok, from the traditional Korean outfit to the “life hanbok,” a contemporary form that is more comfortable and hugs the body more closely.
A debate ensues about the merits of the life hanbok. One student argues it’s “distorting the traditional designs of our ancestors,” while another counters, “Shouldn’t we be glad that the hanbok is at least finding its place in modern life, albeit evolved into a different design?”
The professor chimes in, “Well now, there is a need to diversify styles to accommodate the taste of the modern times.”
The school began with only two majors: management of cultural properties and traditional landscape architecture. In time, the university added concentrations in the traditional study of architecture, arts and crafts, cultural sites and conservation science. The academic offerings will likely expand further.
“We need to develop a major that teaches traditional clothes making and cooking, too,” says the university’s president Kim Byung-mo. “That way, we’ll cover all aspects of human life.”
Field work varies markedly. For instance, students of traditional arts and crafts sit in on weekly lectures from nationally renowned craftsmen like Park Chan-su, a carpenter who specializes in Buddhist woodwork, and Kim Hee-jeon, an expert on traditional knot tying. “It’s a great honor just to watch these masters at work,” Mr. Kim says.
Despite being revered, these professions won’t earn students a fortune. Kim Chang-dae, a 32-year-old freshman, arrived with a degree in industrial design from Busan’s Dongeui University. After teaching high school art for several years, he decided to deepen his knowledge.
“I want to become a jangin,” he says, using the Korean word for traditional craftsman. “No other school teaches the ways of the old masters so well and so meticulously.”
But there are difficulties, he notes. “Since this school is relatively new and unknown, it lacks recognition. And because it espouses traditional studies, we have to take a heavy load of Chinese, which is quite a burden.”
In the school’s work hall, Kim Chang-dae demonstrates his pottery skills to some students. He begins by plunking several large globs of clay on the floor, then hoisting them up onto an electric spinning wheel.
As soon as the wheel starts rotating he moves his hands gracefully along the clay to form the shape of a vase. His hands are deft, and his eyes are locked in rapt concentration. He refuses to answer questions raised by students observing him.
For senior Park Jin-woo, the decision to study conservation science was easy. He was influenced by growing up in Gyeongju, a Unesco world heritage site with countless relics from its period as capital of the Silla Dynasty.
“The choice to come here came naturally for me,” says Mr. Park, whose studies involve excavating artifacts.
“We are given nails and screws ― insignificant but historic artifacts ― to clean, using both electric and hand-held tools,” he says.
And the more ornate items that are discovered? “Because we’re students, the professors don’t let us handle artifacts of great historic value.”
Although Mr. Park defends the school’s curriculum, he admits that its isolation can sometimes be stifling. “The students can’t really enjoy an active school life,” he says. “Our lives revolve around our classes and the dorm.”
Interview: Kim Byung-mo
Dressed in a frock, President Kim Byung-mo looks every bit the scholar he is known to be. A graduate of the first class of the Department of Archaeology at Seoul National University, Mr. Kim studied at the International Committee for Cultural Restoration of Monuments in Italy and received his Ph.D from Oxford University in Britain. He was professor at the department of cultural anthropology at Hanyang University for two decades and was a member of the Cultural Heritage Committee. He has been leading the school since it opened in 2000.
What is the purpose of the school?
Most of the people responsible for handling our cultural assets are amateurs. Public officials are intellectual laymen when it comes to cultural administration. Thus, there has always been an urgent need to train professionals locally to manage our cultural heritage. We need to comprehensively train talent to maintain and preserve our cultural heritage.
What are the strengths of this institution?
Students focus 60 percent of their time on field study. They visit historic sites all around the country, study under renowned experts such as Jeon Heung-soo, Park Chan-su and the like, who are trained to be the best in their field.
What fields will these students pursue after they graduate?
They can work at museums, research centers or become cultural preservation technicians. I also encourage them to pursue advanced education overseas.
What are some difficulties faced by the school?
Funding has not been much of a problem. But because the school is located in such an isolated city, the professors have to be separated from their families, who have to stay in Seoul for educational purposes.
How do you envision this school in 10 or 20 years?
I think we’ll be the envy of other schools because of our students’ achievements. They’ll become professionals in the areas of cultural preservation and traditional arts.
by Choi Jie-ho