Modern tech company turns its attention toward the past

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Modern tech company turns its attention toward the past

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U.S. video game publisher Riot Games financed the restitution of the 18th-century Buddhist artwork “Korean Shakyamuni Triad Painting” from the Hermitage Museum & Gardens in Norfolk, Virginia. Provided by the company

The issue of returning Korean cultural properties looted during past invasions, Japanese colonization (1910-45) and the Korean War (1950-53) is a hot topic these days.

The issue is hardly resolved, but awareness of it has indeed been rising.

Earlier this year, the return to Korea of an 18th-century Buddhist painting after being passed around U.S. museums and art markets for nearly a century made headlines.

But an unlikely element in this piece of news is how U.S. video game publisher Riot Games was involved in the whole thing.

The Hermitage Museum & Gardens in Norfolk, Virginia, returned to Korea the painting as a donation. But the restitution was possible only because Riot Games Korea promised to pay for all expenses in addition to making a financial donation to the museum. The entire cost is believed to have been around 300 million won ($250,000).

Officials noted that it marked the first time that a foreign firm entirely financed the restitution of a Korean cultural property.

In fact, Riot Games - best known for its “League of Legends” game - is no stranger to projects related to restitution, preservation and utilization of Korea’s cultural properties. The company has been involved in such projects since 2012, donating a total of 3 billion won to the cause so far.

“League of Legends” was the most played online PC game in Korea for the 164th week straight as of the third week of September.

Against this backdrop, the Korea JoongAng Daily examined the video game company’s patronage programs in Korean arts and culture.


Restoring history

It’s true that Buddhist paintings from Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) aren’t as valuable as Buddhist paintings from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). After all, Joseon was based on Confucianism, while Goryeo was a highly devout Buddhist kingdom.

As there were few state-supported Buddhist rituals during the Joseon period, Buddhist leaders attempted to preach through paintings. Buddhist paintings from Joseon, therefore, contained many messages.

But the “Shakyamuni Triad” style of paintings are unique in that the composition is rather simple, experts say. Such a simplicity illustrates a confidence in the revival of Buddhism, they say.

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Riot Games Korea also sponsored the preservation of nobu items, which refer to flags, weapons and other items used in royal processions during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

The painting returned from the Hermitage Museum & Gardens is titled “Korean Shakyamuni Triad Painting,” and based on its style it is believed to have been made in the 1730s. The size of the painting is quite overwhelming: It measures 3.1 meters (10.2 feet) in height and width, which is unusually large.

Furthermore, according Kim Seung-hee, an expert in Joseon-era Buddhist paintings at the National Museum of Korea, the painting “has high artistic and academic value” in that the Buddhist priests sitting below the Buddha in the center are drawn with such details and in a dramatic way - something that makes this painting different from other Shakyamuni Triad Paintings.

Officials of the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, which worked on the painting’s restitution, believe that the painting was smuggled from a Korean temple to Japan in the early days of colonization and ended up in the hands of Yamanaka & Company, an Osaka-based antique dealer.

After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the U.S. Office of Alien Property Custodian confiscated all of the company’s antiques and put them up for sale at art auctions, according to the foundation. The Hermitage Museum & Gardens then bought the piece for $450.

But according to the foundation, the painting remained rolled up in storage for a time. In 2011, an association of museums in Virginia put the painting on its list of the 10 most endangered cultural assets to seek sponsorship for restoration. And that’s how the foundation learned about the painting

“It’s meaningful that a cultural heritage item illegally taken out of the country was returned to the country in the form of a donation with sponsorship from a company,” Ahn Hwi-joon, chief of the foundation, said, adding this could be a good model for restitution of other Korean artifacts.


Preserving legacy

Another project Riot Games Korea has been working on for the past few years is restoring Joseon Dynasty nobu. Nobu refers to flags, weapons and other items used in a royal procession, both to display a king’s dignity and to strengthen protection.

Since 2012, Riot Games Korea has financed the National Palace Museum’s preservation of 25 nobu items. In addition to the preservation work, experts also studied related documents and conducted component analysis. The work was completed in January and officials are planning an exhibition dedicated to the nobu artifacts.

“Preservation of nobu items was possible thanks to the sponsorship of Riot Games Korea,” said Lee Gwi-yeong, who was the director of the National Palace Museum at the time. “It was also meaningful that academic study took place in addition to the preservation work.”

Koo Ki-hyang, the company’s senior PR manager, said Riot Games Korea learned of nobu relics after a meeting with museum officials. “Before we decide on our sponsorship programs, we always hold close consultations with the Cultural Heritage Administration or other related organizations,” he said.

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Since 2012, the company has also been holding history-related education and charity programs for its employees as well as gamers.

In that process, the company learned of nobu items and decided to sponsor their preservation, for despite their apparent historic and academic value they were in poor condition. Before the National Palace Museum opened in 2007, they were scattered across various institutions.

And on Sept. 1, Riot Games Korea and the Cultural Heritage Administration held a ceremony at the museum at which the U.S. video game publisher promised 800 million won for upcoming projects related to cultural heritage items.

“I think it’s significant that Riot Games, which distributes game content that the young generation is passionate about, is involved in projects related to cultural heritage items,” Rha Sun-hwa, the head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, said. “I believe Riot Games’ activities will help increase youngsters’ interest of cultural heritage.”

3-D and more

Besides the restitution and preservation of cultural heritage items, Riot Games Korea has been working on creating a three-dimensional database of Korea’s historic buildings.

Between October 2013 and July 2014, for instance, the company worked with the Cultural Heritage Administration and the Korea Land and Geospatial Informatix Corporation to take 3-D measurements of Seoul Munmyo, a Confucian shrine, and Sungkyunkwan, a Confucian education institute, both of which are located in Jongno District, central Seoul.

The combined Seoul Munmyo and Sungkyunkwan complex is designated as National Historic Site No. 143, and five of the 17 structures are classified collectively as National Treasure No. 141.

With the measurements, experts created a 3-D database, which they say will be crucial in restoring historic sites in case of natural disaster. They can also be quite useful for historical education and promotion. In fact, the Cultural Heritage Administration is already using the content online and offline, and the Ministry of Education is planning to do the same.

Riot Games Korea also plans to create 3-D databases of three of the country’s nine major seowon (Confucian institutions that functioned as both schools and shrines) in the coming months. They are: Sosu Seowon in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang; Donam Seowon in Nonsan, South Chungcheong; and Pilam Seowon in Jangseong, South Jeolla.

This move comes as the Cultural Heritage Administration is seeking to add Korea’s seowon to the Unesco World Heritage list.

In addition to these efforts, Riot Games Korea worked on redoing the signboards and cleaning up the Seoul Munmyo and Sungkyunkwan complex and held history programs for Korean “League of Legends” players and its employees.

“Games are also a type of cultural content,” Woody Rhee, Riot Game Korea’s country manager, said in an interview with Newsis, adding that the company’s patronage programs involving Korean cultural heritage began with one employee’s idea in 2011. “A company has a social responsibility. And we do not seek any profit with our patronage programs.”

BY KIM HYUNG-EUN [hkim@joongang.co.kr]

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