Exhibition had the art but forgot the visitors

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Exhibition had the art but forgot the visitors

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The ARA Art Center in Gyeonjin-dong, central Seoul, opened its doors for the ?012 Exhibition for Traditional Crafts of Important Intangible Cultural Heritage in Korea ?An Old is A New.?Following complaints from visitors, name tags were put on the floor of the display counters to explain the works more clearly. By Kim Sung-ryong


The first floor of the exhibition center was empty. The only sound came from Park Myung-bae, the 55th Important Intangible Cultural Property, or the master artisan of furniture also known as Somokjang.

This scene was typical throughout the run of the “2012 Exhibition for Traditional Crafts of Important Intangible Cultural Heritage in Korea” held at the ARA Art Center in Gyeonjin-dong, central Seoul.

Several artisans designated as intangible cultural properties were invited to attend and sometimes perform at the demonstration events that accompanied the exhibition. But often they were the only ones present.

Happening at the same time as Park’s appearance on the first floor where attendance was disappointing, was stone master artisan Lee Jae-soon keeping guard of the fifth floor that was supposed to be filled with people watching his performance.

“The craftsmen went out for lunch early since there aren’t any visitors yet,” said the information desk officer at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

The exhibition held by the Cultural Heritage Administration and the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation through yesterday had good intentions, but its execution left many upset with the results. The run started on Nov. 14 and was set up to show off the entire cohort of important intangible cultural properties. It cost approximately 400 million won ($370,000) to launch and the exhibition staff had gathered about 500 major works.

But even with such worthwhile intentions, the atmosphere around the art center was perpetually gloomy. While taking the one-hour tour around the five-story exhibition center, the JoongAng Ilbo only bumped into six or seven visitors. The admission fee was 10,000 won ($9.2) for an adult - quite expensive for a state-sponsored show. According to an estimation given by the Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, an average number of 200 visitors entered the art center per day during the almost two-week run, but only about 100 people in total actually paid for admission.

“Visitors lose interest if the show is free. That’s why we chose to charge them,” explained an official of the foundation. “We still made it possible for those working in related cultural organizations to visit for free by giving them coupons.”

Many believed that the main problem was that the exhibition did not take the audience into enough consideration. The first floor consisted of a collection of traditional instruments and from the second to fifth floors, one could discover an extensive range of Buddhist paintings, metalwork pieces and furniture.

Yet there was neither an explanation of the works nor a list of their distinguishing characteristics. There were not even name tags of the artisans, which caused further discontent among the visitors.

The exhibition’s creative director Jung Joon-mo said, “If there are explanations, visitors only pay attention to them and not to the works. We wanted them to enjoy each work for itself. That’s why we purposely decided to leave the explanations behind.”

Still, there were no exhibit commentators or audio guides to help the visitors understand the displays.

“There were numerous beautiful craftworks and brass-made plates but it was too bad that I couldn’t find out how they were made,” said university student Kim Ji-yoon.

A noticeable mistake magnified the lack of preparations: a sign in Korean that said, “Linux: What is today’s tradition?” was incorrectly translated in Chinese as “Artisan of Pottery.”

An expert on the cultural properties who requested anonymity said, “With a growing worldwide interest for our intangible cultural assets, it’s disappointing to see that an exhibition that was supposed to display our important traditional works has been poorly organized.”

By Lee Young-hee [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

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