[Viewpoint]Dining where kings walkedIt was an evening in winter 2002 at the Palace of Versailles. As I pulled up in my car at the entrance, a chamberlain in a Louis XIV-era costume showed me the way to the royal apartments.
I went up the stairs and into the salon de la guerre, or the war drawing room, which is decorated with 33 large oil paintings depicting scenes from major historical victories won by France, starting with the Battle of Tolbiac fought by Clovis I to the battle of Wagram won by Napoleon Bonaparte, and 82 busts of generals.
A grand party was being held in the ballroom, as it might have been some 300 years ago.
Instead of aristocrats in wigs and ladies in dresses shaped with farthingale, the invited guests were ordinary people dressed in modern attire.
The evening’s party was hosted by the Samsung Electronics Company’s branch office in France.
In order to introduce the latest products to buyers throughout France, the company invited them to a dinner party at Versailles.
Sitting around beautifully decorated round tables, some 300 French businessmen enjoyed food and wine served by the chamberlains. The guests looked excited and moved.
This is how France promotes its cultural heritage.
France does not hesitate to open its representative historical places to foreign businessmen who want to hold banquets.
Of course, the French authorities use very strict selection criteria, taking into consideration the image of the company that wants to use its cultural assets.
The whole idea of allowing commercial usage of historical places is to help defray the enormous costs of maintaining cultural assets.
But aside from budgetary needs, the French authorities are of the opinion that the protection of cultural assets does not necessarily mean the relics should be wrapped up and shielded behind fences or curtains.
When people live and breathe together with the old relics, they will realize their real value and know the need to protect them.
France is not the only country that opens its historical places to businesses.
The Shoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria; the Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, Germany; and the British Museum in London have similar programs.
It seems that the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea has also learned the idea of bringing the public closer to the country’s historical relics.
It is a good idea that the administration decided to open the backyard of Changdeok Palace, which had been closed to the public for more than 30 years, and held a tea ceremony in which citizens participated at Jeonggwanheon Pavilion in Deoksu Palace.
That’s where the last emperor of the Joseon Dynasty, Gojong, used to give tea parties.
In that way, the administration has returned the cultural heritage to the people through their participation in functions held at historical sites.
Of course, the delight of the people who took part in the activities was beyond description.
It is odd, however, that there are people who look askance at functions held at historical places when food and beverages are served.
In that sense, it is necessary to review last week’s luncheon party at a royal tomb, for which the director of the Cultural Heritage Administration was severely criticized.
The pavilion for the ceremony at a royal tomb is a place for preparing food for memorial services and it was sometimes used as a place where the officials who supervised ceremonial rites tasted wine.
Serving food and beverages there was not a big problem. But taking the risk of setting the cultural asset on fire by barbecuing the food was not proper.
The dinner party at the grand ballroom of Versailles consisted of cold food prepared outside of the royal palace.
And smoking was strictly prohibited.
But that did not reduce the excitement of the participants in the function.
The fact that they were dining at a place that required special rules added to the joy and emotion of the people who were there.
What matters is the unrefined way of thinking, that made people have to eat barbecued meat cooked on the spot.
The place where the party was held is not the problem. The fact that it was a party for “the privileged few” makes people more likely to look askance at it.
People expressed similar views of functions held at royal palaces in Seoul in the past: A dinner party held at Gyeonghoeru in Gyeongbeok Palace for the participants at the meeting of the International Association of Prosecutors and banquets held in the courtyard of Changgyeonggung Palace for the participants in the World Association of Newspapers and members of the International Iron and Steel Institute.
But it is not right to only look at them critically.
The Myeongjeongjeon in Changgyeong was the place where the king received foreign envoys and the Gyeonghoeru in Gyeongbeok Palace used to be the place where the king threw banquets for the envoys. They are historical relics that we can show off to the world.
If we invite world-class leaders to such places, explain the historical background of the cultural relics and serve them dinner, they will certainly get the added feeling of excitement and be moved by the experience.
That is the way we can use our culture to build sales.
It cannot be denied that the dinner party at Versailles had to do with the fact that Samsung’s mobile phones ranked first in market share in France for a couple of years consecutively.
There must be buyers who cherish the memory of the dinner party at the war drawing room as I do, a Korean correspondent in Paris at that time, vividly do.
Considering that there are many wooden buildings among our cultural relics and that more Korean food is served hot than Western food, we have a lot more things to be careful about than France.
But it should not be used as a pretext for prohibiting functions at historical places.
We can make clear-cut rules that should be followed at functions held at historical places.
As long as a reasonable and security-conscious rule is observed at functions held at historical places, they will be free from problems.
Then, no such nonsense as the delivery of cooking gas to a royal tomb will be committed.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom