Scientists eye Korea’s past, future links to nature

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Scientists eye Korea’s past, future links to nature


“Blue Horses,” a painting by Franz Marc, a German painter who frequently depicted animals in his works

With concerns about nature ever growing, a symposium organized by the Human Animal Culture Studies Group was held Jan. 7 at the National Folklore Museum inside Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, tackling the notion head-on by examining the past, present and future of the relationship.

The object of the symposium, “Imaging and Representation of Human-Animal Relationship,” was simple: to discuss biophilia hypothesis, the concept that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and their environment.

Of the panel of experts gathered, Dr. Ross MacPhee and Dr. Laurel Kendall from the American Museum of Natural History in New York sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily to talk about the significance of the connection and what it means for Koreans, people worldwide and natural history museums in the 21st century.


A panel of experts on animal and human relations talk about the representation of the relationship at a symposium. Provided by Hang Lee

Q. You are no stranger to Korea. How did you get involved with Korea and the museums here?

Kendall: I came to Korea in 1970 as a Peace Corps volunteer. In 1976, I came back as a Fulbright scholar and worked in Yangju-gun [north of Seoul, in Gyeonggi]. My research paper was on shamans and women’s rights. In that process, I got to know many folklorists. As a consequence, when I became a museum professional, my friendships with the people at the National Folklore Museum developed over the years.

MacPhee: We were asked to develop ideas to connect history with technology for the proposed Asia wing at our museum. In order to do my job, I had to come up to speed not only with the sorts of topics that would be relevant, since we are trying to do this combo of seeing humans in their natural environment and how their natural environment has affected humans’ cultural development over thousands of years. Korea was one of the really great places. There are excellent presentations of topical material that gave us some great ideas for our own proposed renovations.

So how long have you been developing ideas for the new wing?

MacPhee: Two years and a bit on the project. We got a grant from the Mellon Foundation - basically a travel grant to go to museums all over the world, but particularly in Asia, to museums that have some focus on Asia, including art museums.

You classify nature and history as art?

Kendall: Yes, art is a human activity. We are one of many museums in New York. Our mission is different. We are a very popular museum, we have as many visitors [around five million a year] as the Met [the Metropolitan Museum of Art]. People come to us to learn about nature and science, and some of our exhibits are also about anthropology.

Between the two of us, we’ve talked about how does the biological part and the human part fit together? And beyond that, what other things fit in. Like geology, for example, is the big background that changes the world that we live in and the animals that live with us. How can we tell those stories in an interesting way, so that people learn from us and that enriches what they see at the Met and what they see at the Met enriches what they see with us?

What is the connection between Koreans and nature, and how do you tell it?

Kendall: That’s a very interesting story. First of all, we are a museum, we can’t put a book on the wall. We’ll probably tell the story in a variety of different ways. For example, we want to tell a story about how people live in different kinds of environments in Asia. The rainforest, the coast, high places, seaside places.

MacPhee: We make the distinctions by biomes, which simply means areas defined mostly by temperature and precipitation and what kind of organisms are going to live there successfully. For example, in the tundra, in the north of Asia, there are only a limited number of animals and plants that have successfully adapted. Polar bears, for example. The environment determines a great deal in which direction organisms evolve.

Humans have to live in nature and under conditions that are very extreme. In thinking of Asia, our idea would be to divide Asia into biomes. We look at how the world is divided up, not politically, but in a way that influences people and other living things.

And where does Korea fit in?

Kendall: We might use Seoul of a few decades ago as an example of a megacity. Seoul, at the time of the ’88 Olympics, we can historicize, we can collect things from the recent past and talk about the green belt policy at the time, what was the pollution policy at the time.

In a museum, of course, you have a problem with permanent exhibits because this is the Seoul of today, and when our exhibit opens in 2020, people will look at it and say, “Oh, that’s old-fashioned.” So we will be intentionally a little bit historicized, using things that young Koreans can remember from their childhood. So that’s one way we will talk about Korea in relation to nature.

We’ll be talking about things that modern people don’t talk about in relation to nature, like handicrafts and products. Things that have a strong Korean connection. One of them is paper and the mulberry tree. The process of making paper and then all of the things we get from paper, including when you think of a traditional Korean room, the beautiful jangpanji, or floor paper, and there’s the white paper on the walls and door and maybe we’ll show a corner of a Korean room with the door and the light behind it.

We’ve talked to paper makers in Korea as part of our research, and we understand that most of the mulberry they use now comes from offshore. We will look at why that happens. How does the mulberry story fit into the larger environmental story?

Another Korean story is the presence of lacquer. We have some very good examples of Korean lacquerware that came to us more than 100 years ago.

And we would talk about the trees that gives the sap. Or think of dojagi [pottery], it begins with clay and fire and human ingenuity.

And what about the connection between Korea and its animals?

MacPhee: Oh yes … tigers and cranes. Those two animals have a very strong Korean resonance. In our presentation we’ll have photos of our collection, of Korean tigers. And, of course, we have representations of tigers from all over Asia.

How do you think Koreans have looked after their environment?

Kendall: I wouldn’t generalize about that. When you come to Korea, you talk to people and Korea, like anywhere, is complex. There are people who don’t think of nature, there are people who care passionately and are dedicating their lives.

And for others, nature isn’t something that they think about. We’d say the same thing about the U.S. and almost any other developed society.

MacPhee: We are not interested in wagging our finger and saying you are doing it all wrong. This is about interaction. Telling people that they’ve got to recycle, to love nature … that kind of thing. We don’t expect every one of our five million members to react the same way. And that’s OK.

If there was an animal to signify Korea, what would it be?

Kendall: I think Koreans often like to use the tiger, which was the case for the Olympics.

The tiger has been very present as an image; people often say it is the mountain god or his representative, and it’s no accident that in the 1988 Olympics the mascot was a tiger.

MacPhee: The national animal is a construct. What is important is the idea of biophilia. We are programmed in our own way genetically to react to nature. We live on the planet, so we have to understand how things work. It’s that notion we want to develop.


Dr. Ross MacPhee and Dr. Laurel Kendall. Provided by Hang Lee

Dr. MacPhee, you’ve come to talk about horses. Do you think horses have a presence in Korean culture?

MacPhee: People think horses are a rich man’s hobby; it has no part in most people’s realities in developed countries. But in terms of the historical record and the progress of humanity, there is no other animal as important as the horse, the domesticated horse, for making us what we are today. Before we had harnessed any form of energy, we only had animals, and there was no other animal that had the combination of strength and tractability - the ability to follow what humans wanted - that was useful in so many different ways.

Once you start understanding how important horses were throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, it connects you to nature to understand what the significance of that was.

That’s the past tense; the present tense is do the horses function at all? Within limits, of course they do. There are still a lot of people who ride for many reasons like racing. Also, people with certain kinds of diseases like multiple sclerosis use horses for part of their physical therapy.

Kendall: If we are thinking about Korea and how horses are a part of a historical thread, they’re in there in an interesting way we don’t really think about. For example, if you say that Korea began with the Three Kingdoms, that history came to Korea on horseback. All these people rode horses to travel across Asia, then came down to Korea. Then horses get here and the people begin farming rice and we don’t think so much of mounted warriors, except in the army.

Secondly, when I think of horses I think of material culture. Two objects come to mind. Mapae [horse tokens], you know the tale of Chunhyang and when young master Lee comes back to save Chunhyang when he’s in disguise. How does he reveal himself? He shows his badges. It’s the badge that symbolizes him as someone with power. Also, think about the traditional Korean dress. What does a yangban [nobleman] wear on his head? The hat made from the tails of horses from Jeju Island. One of the things that a museum can do is to get people to open up their eyes and say, “I never thought about horses in relations to a yangban.” And yet if it weren’t for horses, we wouldn’t have the characteristic hat.

On the topic of animals, what about the significance of the dog in Korean culture?

Kendall: In the recent past, there has been a huge transformation. Traditionally, they had two functions: watchdogs and then dogs for cuisine. And then I think from the ’70s and forward, people began to see dogs in the same manner as Western people see dogs. The dog is an extension of the household circle … given a name, a special house, treated and pampered and treated as something that’s not going into soup.

And what do you make of the practice of eating dogs?

MacPhee: We are not into moral tales. We are interested in the human journey in regards to nature and that’s the overriding principle of everything that we are doing.

And rather than generalizing about the human relationship, the natural world is constantly changing. Even in Korea, there are different people that regard dogs in different ways, or think about or don’t think about tigers. What we want to show is not a generalization about Korea or Asia, but special stories, at one point people thought this or did this.

Do you think that once people encounter these stories at the museum, it will lead to environmental activism?

MacPhee: A moral compass is not necessary. What I don’t like is any kind of museum that is too didactic. We do a lot of that in conservation biology, some people react well to it, others don’t. Art museums have it a lot easier; it’s already accepted you may go to the museum although you hate the art, but that’s OK. It’s the individual’s reaction to what he or she is seeing that is regarded as important.

Kendall: I think the museum has some of its biggest impact through the things we show and the impressions we leave.

Not everyone who comes to our museum is going to want to be an anthropologist, but if we do our job well a lot of people are going to want to learn a lot more about the human world and the natural world. Our job is to stimulate curiosity and that’s not through preaching but giving something really predictable. We have to try and shake them up and make them say, “I never thought about that one.”

Of course, tourists may come and go, but one of the biggest problems is to draw local visitors. Is that also the case in the United States?

MacPhee: People think [going to the natural history museum is] daunting because you’ve got to know stuff; you got to know big words. And to a certain extent you have to be open. You’ve got to be willing to try and understand. But it’s our job not to make it dumb but to make it understandable. What a natural history museum can do - probably unlike any other institution - is show you a map of what the real world is like outside the four walls, so if you are a thinking person, the point that you get is, “I’m not alone and it’s important that I understand that.”


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