Massachusetts museum features Korea wingNot many people are aware that the oldest continuously operating museum in America is in Salem, Massachusetts. The Peabody Essex Museum, founded in 1799 by the East India Marine Society, holds that claim. The museum’s respected collection of Asian art includes work from China, Japan and Korea as well as South Asia.
The museum underwent a $125 million renovation beginning in 1996 and the larger, renovated Peabody is set to reopen June 21 with its first-ever separate Korean gallery. Up to now, Korean works were combined with other Asian countries’.
The “Yu Kil-chun Gallery of Korean Art and Culture,” contains more than 2,000 items from the latter part of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 to 1910), housed in a 260 square meter (2,800 square foot) space.
A Korean scholar-diplomat who visited the United States in 1883 was largely responsible for bringing about this museum’s attention to his nation’s art. During Yu kil-chun’s visit as part of the Joseon delegation, he became close with the Peabody’s director at the time, Edward Morse. With the director’s support, Mr. Yu obtained an education in the United States., and later turned over much of his personal art collection to the museum. Their friendship strengthened Mr. Morse’s interest in Korean art and culture, and he continued to acquire Korean art objects.
The new gallery will exhibit ceremonial regalia used among the Joseon era’s royal court and in religious rituals, as well as fine art that had decorated the homes of Korean yangban, or gentry.
Items on display include a courtier’s blue silk robe, worn during rituals at the royal ancestral shrine; an elaborately embroidered red silk robe originally used in a princess’s wedding, and an 18th-century painting of a mountain spirit.
Also housed at Peabody is an extensive amount of decorative art that once belonged to the aristocracy, such as inlaid lacquer works, including an early 18th century document storage box adorned with lotuses made of inlaid mother-of-pearl.
“While most Korean collections in the West focus on ceramics and paintings, the Peabody Essex collection emphasizes the breadth of Korean art,” says Susan Bean, the museum’s curator of South Asian and Korean Art.
While the Peabody established the Korean gallery in 1992, the Korea Foundation, under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has provided financial support. The late Yu Byeong-deok, a direct descendant of Yu Kil-chun, who was president of Cheonrok Development Co. also made contributions to the museum.
According to the Korea Foundation, the Peabody’s collection is one of about 50 stand-alone Korean art or artifacts galleries in 17 countries. That number has grown markedly since the foundation was established in 1991.
by Choi jie-ho