Korea hosts courses for overseas curatorsIt’s been little over a decade since the Korean government actively began helping major museums around the world to expand the scale of Korean collections abroad, and the result has been reasonably successful.
So far, the Korea Foundation, a government agency mainly responsible for funding research projects on Korea, has helped set up 15 rooms featuring Korean art in overseas museums. The largest is a Korean gallery at the British Museum, which includes pre-historic paintings, screens and printed books.
One of the foundation’s regular activities is to host Korean art curators from abroad for workshops on local art and culture. Currently, 28 curators from Europe, Asia and North America are in Seoul to attend an 11-day workshop on “Korean Folklore.”
“We’re learning more about Korean art before buying real collections from Korea,” said Chi Jo-Hsin, a researcher and director at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, which holds one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese artifacts. The museum has recently sought to expand its holding of Korean art. “Right now, the emphasis is mostly on the tea culture and Buddhist art in Asia.”
Dennis Samsonov, a researcher at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in Russia, said that general awareness of Korea is slowly growing in Russia.
“If you speak about influence, I cannot exactly say that Russians are interested in traditional Korean culture itself,” he said. “But there is a great interest in Korean cinema, ever since the first North Korean martial arts film ‘Hong Gil Dong’ [was introduced to Russia]. It came even before Hong Kong martial arts films.”
The Peter the Great Museum, which was founded in 1714 by decree of Peter the Great, houses up to 2,000 Korean artifacts including items used by King Gojong and Queen Min when on a Russian mission at the beginning of the 18th century. (The collection includes a small vase given to the Russian consul to Korea by Queen Min.)
It is still a small number compared to the 30,000 artifacts in the museum’s Japanese collection, but the Korean pavilion attracts special attention as it is an independent gallery.
Hyeonjeong Kim Han, an associate curator of Chinese and Korean Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, explains that their Korean section demands greater attention in scale and content than their Japanese gallery, which has a separate building funded by a private donor.
The department of Korean art at the L.A. County Museum, which began its Korean art collection with a major donation by President Park Chung Hee in 1966, has one of the biggest collections of Korean art outside of Korea and Japan.
“We have many local donors,” Ms. Kim Han explained. “In 2000 we acquired about 250 valuables from a dealer based in L.A.”
Currently, the museum is in the process of building up a collection of contemporary Korean pieces. As a start it’s hosting a major exhibit of young contemporary Korean artists in 2009.
“It’s going to be a show about what’s in Seoul right now,” she says, “what young generations think about their identity today.”
On issues of cultural ownership, the museum curators seemed to be aware of the Korean government’s claims of art having been looted.
The L.A. museum is certainly aware of the issue, especially after the Getty Museum decided to return some of its antiquities to Greece last year.
“We have always been concerned about the provenance issue when we acquire new works,” Ms. Kim Han said. “But that’s a very difficult issue. Korea wants to promote Korean art overseas. But we don’t promote stolen art either. It’s a complex issue because we don’t have strong laws about how many works are actually located in overseas museums, or what kind of work should be returned. For example can Korea claim ownership of ceramics we acquired before the Korean War?”
by Park Soo-mee