[IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW]Director looks to life away from museum

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[IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW]Director looks to life away from museum

Lee Kun-moo, the director of the National Museum of Korea, looks down from the window of his office. In a small plaza at the center of the museum, a casually dressed tenor sings “O Sole Mio,” in front of a sizable audience, consisting of teenagers, college students and mothers with children in their arms. Gazing at the peaceful scene on this quiet Saturday afternoon, a smile spreads across Mr. Lee’s face.
“It is good to look at things like this. A museum is a place where you play and rest your soul. A museum is not necessarily a place for research,” Mr. Lee said. “I feel rather anxious when the museum is too quiet. A little bit of noise makes me feel more comfortable.”
Mr. Lee, who started his career at the museum as a research fellow in 1973, was appointed head of the national museum in 2003 by the president. But he is about to end his term, having recently sent a letter of resignation to the ministry of culture.
“I sort of started as a private [in the army] and became the general chief of staff,” he said. The 55-year-old archaeologist spoke recently to the JoongAng Ilbo about his 33-year career at the prestigious national museum and his undying passion for archaeology.

Q. Are things slow at the museum during the World Cup?
A.It’s true that our number of customers has decreased a little lately. It’s a pity the Korean team failed to make the semifinal but I hope the public’s passion over the World Cup will shift to the museum.

You call your patrons “customers.”
Museums need to roll out marketing tactics that move people, and look at things from the perspective of the service consumers rather than the providers. It means we need to make this museum a place to delight customers. A museum without customers is a dead place. With that in mind, I enhanced service training for employees and created a service manual. For instance, we removed all reference to “ticket sales office,” and changed them to “ticket purchase office.”

There were a great number of patrons coming in while tickets were free. But those patrons are nowhere in sight now as entrance is no longer free. Is that because Korea’s audience culture is still immature?
When we opened the place free of charge for two months beginning late October to celebrate our new opening, 1.34 million people flocked here. It was definitely far more than we could accommodate. The number of patrons shrank after we began charging for tickets, but I think it is part of the normalization process.
On June 17, the number of patrons so far exceeded 3 million, and an average of about 10,000 patrons come here each day even after we charged for tickets, which is double the number when our museum was located at Gyeongbokgung. The ideal number of patrons is 8,000 a day.

You have been a guardian of this museum for more than 30 years.
I was very fortunate and blessed. I prepared the relocation to Yongsan in order to pay the museum back for all the things I received. It was a success, as the relocation was completed on time and there were no major problems.

What makes you think the relocation was a success?
Internally, we think so. We changed titles and descriptions of each artifact to easier ones so that children can understand them better. We also opened a children’s museum, which is a rarity among the world’s major national museums. The children who get used to the museum will be a great asset to Korean culture. We also reinforced various education programs for a diverse range of people, including housewives, the disabled, senior citizens and foreigners. We established a stable system that would not fluctuate much whoever becomes the head of this museum.

Do you feel there is more work that could have been done?
The National Museum of Korea seeks to become a multiplex of cultural experiences, not a fossil-like dead place with artifacts from the past. Also, it is not a place for history class but a place you can come to anytime to rest your soul in a peaceful environment. That is why we built more theaters and restaurants.
But we still lack content for patrons to enjoy during the daytime. Exhibitions and theater-like performances are played out separately. We still have to supplement so many things in order to make this place show a wide range of things, like package programs that integrate exhibitions, art lectures, music and even cooking.

What attracted you to the Bronze Age [Mr. Lee’s specialist subject]?
Right after I graduated from college and finished military service, I got a job at the museum. Back then, there was an exhibition for the Bronze Age going on.
There were few students who majored in the Bronze Age, and I got interested in the field, which is quite distinguishable from the Stone Age and the Iron Age.

What aspects of the Bronze Age did you think most attractive?
The Bronze Age is an era where new renovations and revolutions in life and technology took place. Humans began to make various forms of artificial tools beyond mere stone. Agriculture prospered, creating production surpluses and prompted the inception of social classes.

What is most attractive about archaeology?
People used to think that archaeology was a job mainly attached to the past. But archaeology is a science that finds future-oriented newness based on the past.
When you know the past, you can see today and the future. If you look back at how a culture has developed over the years, you can also predict where it will go in the future.
It is the same with the [national] museum. There is the same internal mechanism whether you operate robotics and electronics exhibitions or a museum.

What is your plan after retirement?
I don’t know...this museum was my life itself.
I’d like to work as a volunteer for the museum. Just because I was the museum head doesn’t mean that I can’t do such a job. Customers will be happy to hear my explanation about artifacts I excavated myself.
Let’s meet again then.

by Park Jung-ho
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