[VIEWPOINT]A cultural treasure hunt must begin

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[VIEWPOINT]A cultural treasure hunt must begin

The Board of Audit and Inspection conducted a survey of the current status of the overall management of Korea’s cultural heritage. The Board made an intensive audit and inspection of culture-related national agencies from Sept. 7 to Dec. 9 of last year.
According to the report, some of the royal seals of the Joseon dynasty are missing and most of the housed seals are seriously damaged. As someone who has spent a lifetime on the excavation, examination and conservation of cultural heritage, I cannot help but feel partly responsible for this situation.
We have national agencies that house and manage cultural properties, such as the National Palace Museum of Korea, other state-run agencies under the Cultural Heritage Administration, the National Museum of Korea and national museums located in local areas. As in the case of the seals from the Joseon dynasty, when cultural properties are poorly managed, even by national agencies, we can easily guess how poorly privately owned cultural properties are managed.
Korea’s cultural heritage during the Japanese occupation was devastated by Japan. We had to spend a long 36 years unaware of even the concept of cultural property. Although Korea was liberated from Japanese rule in 1945, the Korean War broke out in 1950. Being busy making ends meet, we frankly could not pay much attention to our cultural heritage.
The cultural property protection law, which established the systematic management of Korean cultural properties, was at last enacted in 1962. Since then, 44 years have passed, which is not a short period. Nonetheless, some of the seals from the Joseon dynasty, which should have been housed in the National Palace Museum of Korea under the Cultural Heritage Administration, are scattered in the National Museum of Korea and at the National Jeonju Museum in North Jeolla province. Moreover, some of the conserved seals have been lost or damaged due to negligent management. We can make no excuses for taking such improper measures. There is no room to protest, either, that this is an unfair assessment.
There is a saying, “better late than never.” The government authorities in charge of cultural property should take now as an opportunity to take proper measures.
They should investigate the current status of not just the seals from the Joseon dynasty, but also the housed relics, and take urgently needed measures against further damage.
In the long term, they should establish a comprehensive management system by transferring those scattered seals of the Joseon dynasty to the National Palace Museum of Korea, and seeking ways to duplicate those seals whose whereabouts cannot be confirmed.
Since the enactment of the cultural property protection law, our cultural heritage has increased tremendously.
For example, nationally designated cultural properties, including national treasures and valuables, have reached 2,949 items. Locally designated cultural properties, including provincial and municipal tangible cultural items, number 6,371. This figure adds up to almost 10,000 items in total.
But the number and whereabouts of some privately owned cultural properties are unknown.
What matters is that regardless of designation or non-designation, cultural properties should be protected. Cultural properties housed in national, public or private museums benefit from protection to a degree, but privately owned cultural properties are left in a dead space. For this reason, a priority should be put on investigating the whereabouts of cultural properties.
The results of the audit and inspection of the board are, in fact, minor issues. On this occasion, it is worth considering reinstating the law on the registration of movable cultural property, which was instituted in the 1970s and then later abolished. The basic intent of that law was to report and register all cultural properties possessed by persons, corporate persons and agencies. It became useless, because some individuals and corporations were reluctant to disclose the cultural properties they owned.
But now the situation is different from 30 years ago. Our awareness about cultural heritage has increased, and the economic size of Korea, too, has grown incomparably.
The state cannot compulsorily redeem cultural properties, even if they are registered. We should know where cultural properties are before we can begin to protect them.
In this regard, much is expected of the “General Hospital for Cultural Properties,” which is scheduled to begin to be built at the end of this year. When the “hospital” is completed, privately owned cultural properties will have more chances to get “treatment.”
These are the lessons and tasks given by the Board of Audit and Inspection to the cultural heritage management agencies.

* The writer is the director of the Land Museum and former director of the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Cho You-jeon
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