Showing Korean culture in France

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Showing Korean culture in France

I visited the Sevres City of Ceramics, a national ceramics museum, on a business trip to Paris out of curiosity. When I met then-president David Cameo two years ago, he had told me about the plan to hold a special exhibit with the Korean ceramics in storage. The Manufacture Nationale de Sevres is a royal porcelain factory founded at the request of Madame de Pompadour, a mistress of Louis XV, in 1759. The museum displays a splendid collection of ceramics from around the world. However, most of the Korean works were stacked on shelves in storage at the time. I wondered whether it was possible to present a proper exhibition with those pieces.

I was welcomed by a poster reading “Coree Mania” at the entrance. The museum guide told me that the main exhibition was over but a special exhibition was in progress. From the beginning of the year to July, the exhibition presented 190 pieces including Goryeo celadon, blue and white ware from the Joseon Dynasty, and modern Korean pieces. Many of them were collected by the first French ambassador to Korea, Victor Collin de Plancy (1853-1933), during his service. Currently, works by pottery artist Kim Yik-yung and installation artist Kim Yeun-kyung are on display on the first floor. It was during the summer holiday season, but the exhibition hall didn’t have many visitors.

The Korean exhibition at Sevres was controversial from the beginning. Aside from the artistic level of the porcelain works, careless mistakes like typos were found. The exhibit book didn’t provide explanations, only simple descriptions in French. While Sevres had been preparing the exhibition for several years, it had requested assistance from the Korean government and museums, but no one showed interest. The opening ceremony was attended by staff from the Korean Cultural Center in Paris and the Korean Embassy, but typos and mistakes weren’t corrected until the exhibition ended.

What really shocked me were the souvenirs at the museum shop. The products for sale were poorly made. The pencils, notebooks and utensil sets with colored stripes and Taegeuk symbols were so out of fashion that they were better suited for the 1980s. The ginseng product with no explanation was simply appalling. I thought about the refined selection of cultural products offered at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. What would the visitors think when they saw these absurd souvenirs at the national ceramics museum of France?

This year marks the 130th anniversary of Korea-France relations. From September, a number of cultural institutes in France will hold events on Korea. Having seen the ginseng extract at Sevres, I am worried. If it cannot be presented properly, it is better not to show it at all.

The author is a cultural and sports news writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 26, Page 30


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