Korean-Americans work to save U.S. gallery

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Korean-Americans work to save U.S. gallery

When the Korea Gallery opened at the Smithsonian Institution in 2007, it was lauded as a symbol of growing interest in Korean culture in the United States.

But with a lack of displays, falling visitor numbers and poor publicity, the gallery could now be facing closure.

To save the gallery from this fate, a local foundation and student volunteers have launched a field trip program it hopes will help boost visitor numbers.

The Korea Gallery is located on the second floor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which draws 800,000 visitors to its halls every year and covers 100 square meters (1076.4 square feet).

When it opened, it was to feature displays on ancient and contemporary Korean history, traditional family customs, ceramics, Hangul and contemporary art.

But there are reportedly only a few artifacts on display: hanbok (traditional Korean dress) for a traditional bride and groom, a few pieces of Korean ceramics and a water jar.

The Korea Gallery was originally to have been a part of the museum’s Hall of Asian Cultures. When that plan fell through, the Korean government stepped in and signed a 10-year contract with the Smithsonian Institution to open the gallery in 2007, providing $1.25 million through the Korea Foundation.

If the gallery’s situation doesn’t improve, the gallery could close in 2017 when the Korean government’s contract expires.

Sook Moon, the president of the U.S.-Korea Arts Foundation (USKAF), which was created in 2007 to support the Korea Gallery and introduce Korean culture to people in the United States, said she is worried about the situation and hopes to improve the substandard condition of the gallery to protect it from closure.

“The main reason that the Korea Gallery is at risk of closing is that just a small number of people visit the gallery and it is not promoted well,” Moon said in a recent e-mail interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. She also said there is an overall lack of interest in the gallery among Korean-Americans and the Korean government.

“From May to October, the peak season, a lot of people visit the Natural History museum, and some visit the Korea Gallery,” Moon said.

The number of visitors to the Korea Gallery in the off-season is tiny in comparison, Moon said.

The precise number of visitors to the gallery is unavailable because the gallery does not maintain such records.

Moon said, however, that there is reason for hope that the gallery can be saved. The USKAF has launched a field trip program it hopes will contribute to efforts to keep the gallery open.

Through the program, the foundation organizes field trips to the gallery for high school students in the D.C. area in an effort to provide them with an understanding of Korean culture.

To support the program, the foundation has a total of 17 high school and four college interns, mostly Korean-Americans, who volunteer by helping with the program.

Han Jung-yul, a student volunteer who began an internship with the program in June, said she is concerned about the substandard condition of the Korea Gallery.

“At first, I didn’t even know the Korea Gallery was in the Museum of Natural History,” she said. “But after I learned about how the USKAF is trying to improve the gallery, I wanted to be of help.”

Moon said the gallery also has plans to expand the program to a national audience.

“We plan to advertise the field trip program to more schools in the region and also hope to draw more Korean tourists to the gallery,” Moon said. “We cannot improve the situation in an instant but we look forward to more support from Korea so that the Korea Gallery can become a great pavilion and can stay in the Smithsonian Institution permanently to promote Korean culture and history.”

By Choi Jeong-pil Contributing writer [estyle@joongang.co.kr]
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