‘Museums tell story of humankind through history, culture’
Stone blades from the Neolithic Era, stone arrowheads from the Bronze Age, stainless steel spoons, hwatu gambling cards and even blue jeans worn by people today.
These are all part of the resources owned by the National Folk Museum of Korea, and all of these historical assets can be found in the museum’s online archives.
In November last year, the museum released to the public online data about almost all — some 99 percent — of its artifacts, accounting for approximately 68,000 items. It recently received an offer for cooperation on a memorandum of understanding from Google’s Fine Arts Program. Google focused on this museum in particular because it’s the first-ever museum to open such a large volume of its information to the public, anywhere in the world.
Much of this is attributed to the beliefs of the museum’s director general, Cheon Jingi.
“The times when a museum could boast about how many artifacts it has in its archives are now gone. Museums now must open all of their resources to the public so that users themselves can search and make use of it all, both for public and commercial purposes,” said Cheon.
His belief in openness is revealed not only in the informatization of the museum. They can also be sensed in the exhibits and roles undertaken by the museum. Korea.net recently met with Cheon to talk about his ideas about the future direction of museums in general, and his beliefs about folk life, culture and history.
National Folk Museum of Korea Director General Cheon Jingi says that, ‘Museums should be an easy place for all of us,
so that anyone can freely visit.’ He also emphasizes the point that people should not only learn about exhibits, but also ‘feel’ it with their hearts.
– The range of exhibits at the National Folk Museum of Korea has grown, now ranging from everyday household items through to the establishment of diplomatic relationships. This is far beyond the general concept of “folklore.” What’s the background to this?
We previously held our “Blue Jeans” exhibit and we’re currently holding our “Exchange of Food Culture on the Table” exhibit. In two years, we plan to host an exhibit about junk. It’s possible for us to hold such exhibits because “folklore” has a wide meaning. I, personally, believe that the National Folk Museum of Korea should send a strong message to the world about once every three years or so.
I got the idea for a “Blue Jeans” exhibit after reading a research paper about denim from an anthropologist in the U.K. After that, we spent three years making it come true and getting more ideas by visiting the Levi Strauss Museum in the U.S., and by learning more about the history of blue jeans in Korea with brands here such as Bang Bang or Jordache. One 80-year old American regarded blue jeans as sexy and even donated a pair to us. In Japan, a pair of denim pants can cost more than KRW 5 million. I realized that even though everyone thinks they know what blue jeans are, each culture has a different understanding of them.
In the case of the “Exchange of Food Culture on the Table” exhibit, curators and producers from various art fields, such as space art, video art and sound effects, participated in it, brainstorming ideas for the exhibit, and that’s how we came up with our new attempt to produce a 360-degree set of rotating video screens.
Visitors to the National Folk Museum of Korea look around the ‘Exchange of Food Culture on the Table’ exhibit on Feb. 7.
The exhibit is designed to introduce the food cultures and cuisines of both Korea and Japan
in order to mark the 50-year anniversary of the two nations’ diplomatic relationship.
– Korea is home to a growing number of content creators — cultural content, in particular — but our consumption of culture can be lagging. Do you have any thoughts on this, or solutions?
It’s like people who go to a museum just to study there at a cubicle, because they don’t know how to otherwise use a museum’s assets. It’s possible that people today don’t know how to use the culture we produce, especially when compared to the total volume of cultural content Korea creates today. The creators and producers of cultural content need to consider the consumer side as much as possible before creating their content.
In the case of our “Red Monkey Bringing Good Fortune” exhibit, look at the small sculpture “Celadon Water Dropper in the Shape of Mother and Baby.” We shouldn’t see it just as a work of “celadon porcelain, a water dropper and a mother and baby monkey.” We should be able to cry with it.
Parents who have lost children, or people who have lost a parent, will see it this way and be comforted because the artwork represents the love of family and maternal love. When they cry and are comforted, they will feel better and then see the monkeys and the color of the porcelain itself. Finally, they will be able to see with their hearts.
To do all this, museums should become a comfortable place. One shouldn’t come to a museum just to grab knowledge. They should come here to eat or to have fun. I hope that people can change their views on history and culture, and their viewpoint on the museum.
– Since 2010, the National Folk Museum of Korea has been managing its Culture Discovery Box, known as the “Kkureomi,” a multicultural project where we introduce certain cultural aspects from Vietnam, Mongolia, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Korea and China. What are you trying to pursue by running such research projects?
When it comes to culture, we have to communicate both ways. We should introduce other cultures and societies, as well as our own history and traditions, in order to broaden understanding. We should contemplate how all human beings can coexist together, and ways to achieve a harmonious coexistence and co-prosperity across all of humankind. A “cultural approach” can be one of the basic ways to do all this. In line with this, one of the main tasks at the National Folk Museum of Korea is to run this Culture Discovery Box project designed to share other countries’ cultures and to widen understanding.
We should really change our views on multiculturalism. We shouldn’t see it from the point of view of only Korea. We should see it from the point of view of the other societies and change our mindsets first. By this, I mean, for example, that we shouldn’t force daughters-in-law from Vietnam to learn everything about Korean culture. Instead, if we try to learn and understand more about the cultures of her homeland, everyone will be happier.
Korea and its closest neighbors — China and Japan — all use chopsticks, but each style of chopstick is different in terms of shape and material because of the differences found in each of the three food cultures. We shouldn’t consider such differences strange, but to help broaden our understanding. Our museum continues to run such projects and exhibits about culture comparison in order to help people’s love for humanity grow through cultural understanding.
Director General Cheon talks about various folklore symbols from around the globe.
He says that we need to widen our understanding of other cultures, not just introduce our culture to others.
By doing so, he says, we can contribute to the coexistence and co-prosperity of humankind.
– When it comes to the artifacts owned by the National Folk Museum of Korea, we can see some interesting yet trivial day-to-day items that make us think, “Wow. Can that really become an artifact?” In our rapidly-changing modern world, what criteria should we use to judge the value of a thing as an artifact worth owning?
We live in a world of mass production and consumption. They say that an average wholesaler deals with about 30,000 up to 40,000 items. Among them, the ones we purchase, are only worth owning if they combine with other people, other spaces and other things. To collect artifacts of the contemporary world, this museum conducts research into how many day-to-day items there are in an average household.
To do this, we publish a series of “Living Goods” books, dubbed “Salim sari” (살림살이), three times a year. Through these surveys, we can record the number of items people buy, what colors and shapes, and geographical location, all while taking photos just as we do when we take photos of more standard museum artifacts. During this process, we also receive donations.
Thanks to these records, in the future we’ll be able to restore a standard household of today. Any artifacts that have entered a “cultural situation,” or artifacts that have users, a time of usage and data, are worth owning. It may not be worth much now, but in 10 years it may acquire a cultural value.
We need to think about how, in the future, we can record, collect and restore our places of today. This is kind of like the way in which we just make assumptions about the life of our ancestors from shells or from an archeological dig. If we don’t record such things, when thousands of years later archeologists find a pack of instant noodles in a dump, they might just say something like, “Instant noodles were a daily staple for people of the past.”
– You grew up in a typical Confucian household in Andong. I guess you have some special memories that can only be experienced in an extended family. Are there any special moments that you experienced through your extended family, which perhaps helped you to become the person you are today?
I’ll put it in one word: freedom. I didn’t have either an education from a prestigious university or grow up with an aristocratic background. Simply growing up in Andong has helped me become who I am today, I guess. I assume I might have a different point of view from most people on how they see traditional culture, as I grew up in Andong. For this, I’m proud of my “cultural soil,” Andong. My academic background studying folklore is another strength that helped me become who I am today.
The study of folklore is a field that always involves sites: physical locations. The only way to gain knowledge is to have a conversation with seniors who live there. As I grew up in an extended family where I always had to deal with my elders in a natural setting, I probably just felt easy talking to them.
Today, we live in an era where people judge others by what university they graduated from, or from their choice of major. However, this doesn’t apply to me. As I’m not such a person, and I’d be glad if I could inspire someone with this, I’d believe that I’m playing my part to the fullest.
Director General Cheon highlights the fact that traditional Confucian values,
such as consideration of others and humbleness, are worth sharing today.
– Korean society today seems to be far from its Confucian roots. Some people see this from a negative perspective. However, are there any Confucian values we need to succeed, and to share with the world today?
It seems that we underestimate Confucianism and interpret it way too negatively. An old saying from the past said that if someone died from starvation, the village isn’t worth surviving. This is because of the altruistic mindset of traditional Confucianism. I believe Confucianism could be one way to raise a world leader, not something that we should ignore.
This can be seen in the book “Like a Seonbi Scholar, Like Toegye,” (선비처럼, 퇴계처럼) written by Kim Byeong-il, the head of the Seonbi Culture Training Center. This book looks at the case of Jim Kim Yong, the president of the World Bank, and says that he is an example of the Seonbi spirit of Confucianism. He was, in fact, a doctor who studied anthropology. His mother was a scholar who studied the well-known Joseon scholar Toegye Yi Hwang (1501-1570) (퇴계 이황, 退溪 李滉) . He tried to serve humankind through his medical studies. He previously served as a dean of a university and then became head of the World Bank to put his way of life into practice. We need to share the Confucian values of service for humankind and charity for all people, respect and a strict sense of oneself while being generous to others (신독, 愼獨).
– Society emphasizes the importance of studying the humanities. However, many students avoid studying the humanities as they have to prepare for finding a job right after graduation. As a scholar, what do you think about this?
We should study the humanities not to advance our career, but as a way to live a fulfilling life. A few years ago, our museum had a special exhibit on the jongga (종가 宗家), the heads of each family clan. While preparing for the exhibit, we studied the secrets that helped them succeed over hundreds of years, all while maintaining respect from the people involved.
The Ryu family, for example, based in Munhwa, in Gurye, had a big bin outside their main residence filled with rice. They allowed those who were hungry to take some rice from there. This is called “the spirit of allowing others to take” (타인능해, 他人能解). All the respected jongga family heads, including the heads of the Kim family of Andong and the Choe family of Gyeongju, shared such things in common. They tried to coexist together, and didn’t just focus on living well by themselves.
We might not be able to say that studying the humanities can help us to win bread, but it plays a very important part in life. Without the spirit of living together, as is shown in the rice bin, the jongga family heads would have been doomed to disappear.
On the contrary, however, their neighbors voluntarily protected them when they faced historic or political turmoil. The jongga family heads were able to maintain themselves thanks to their life styles where they took consideration of others. This is due to their humbleness, respect for others and for their family mottos that value the importance of living harmoniously with others. We need to talk about studying the humanities as a way of life, a way worth living as a decent human being. By studying the humanities, we should be able to heal our lives. Today’s humanities studies are designed to learn about them through the brain, but this is not the appropriate way to accept it.
– The National Folk Museum of Korea runs various educational programs that target children, teenagers, grownups and non-Koreans, too. Why put all this effort into these educational programs? Where do you think the educational programs will go in the future?
Knowledge learned with the head is different from knowledge learned with the heart and experienced through our body. Knowledge we learn at school is learned with the head. Our museum’s educational programs are different. We can see the actual relics, create something first-hand and experience it through our body. This educational experience has other strengths, unlike a scholastic education, as it involves this site. This varied education is based on a range of experiences. Considering such strengths, I hope that the museum can plan various educational programs where people could learn with their hearts, experience with their bodies and remember it for a long time.
Our educational targets used to concentrate on teenagers, or on fostering experts, but there was not enough educational opportunities for seniors. So our museum now will run more educational programs focusing on the elderly, such as Oriental medicine for a healthy life and a program about healthy eating. We also plan to hold an exhibit about the lifestyles of senior citizens. The exhibit will cover the thoughts and wise sayings of the elderly. By doing so, I hope to integrate all walks of life.
– What exhibits do you wish to host in the future?
I hope we’ll be able to host exhibits about junk, sugar and fragrances. Sugar, in particular, holds special significance in the history of human civilization.
I had the idea for an exhibit about junk after I saw a presentation by the curator of the French National Museum of Folk Arts and Traditions at a seminar last year. I suggested to the curator that both Korea and France should open an exhibit about junk, where France focuses more on junk in the Mediterranean region and we concentrate on junk from the Korean side. We’re currently preparing a related academic seminar and plan to host the exhibit in the summer of 2017 or so.
In the past, people weren’t so careless about throwing things away. When clothes were worn out, people quilted a piece of jogakbo patchwork to mend it. They didn’t throw away a single dustbrush. Today, however, how much trash do we toss away in one day? Our exhibit will show the volume an individual throws away in one single day. It will include junk art, people who eat with junk, recycling and the issue of environment and the future of the planet.
In the case of an exhibit about fragrances, all luxury fashion brands, such as Chanel, have their own fragrance lines to fill out their lineup of luxury items. What about Korea? I asked myself the question. Do we only have incense that we burn at the annual jesa ancestral rites?
– This may sound like an irrelevant question, but why do you think people should visit museums?
You can come to a museum just to have fun. There’s no need to expect any special experience. You can just come to the museum voluntarily. I would say that there are three kinds of people who come to the museum. One comes to study. Another, to eat. The rest of us come to museums to have fun.
Most visitors come to a museum to gain knowledge, but I guess it’s not that interesting. For those who come to the museum to eat or to have fun, I hope the museum can sell popular food items from well-known gourmet shops or restaurants. If we can make the museum a place to eat something delicious, I’d bet more people would head to the museum.
In the case of the National Folk Museum of Korea, as of 2014 we had 3.5 million visitors, with non-Koreans accounting for 65 percent of that. Online, we had 2.5 million visitors. Our museum’s “Visiting Museum” project also attracted 300,000 people at the same time. We plan to come up with more ideas on how to approach more people in more ways possible.
– You once defined a museum as a mirror. A mirror can reflect both history and the self. What is the best way for us to use a museum as a mirror?
We shouldn’t repeat the same wrongdoings of the past. As we can see our front, our sides and our back in the mirror, we can see the past from various angles through the museum. As I reflect on our appearance through the mirror, I can see a past that I didn’t know at that time, and which won’t be known in the future.
Museums display traditions and the past based on relics. However, we should move on from talking about past stories. We have to talk about the present and the future, and the story of humankind. History and culture are not for looking back, but for looking forward.
Article by Yoon Sojung
Photos by Jeon Han
Korea.net Staff Writers
The National Folk Museum of Korea is located next to Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul.
On Feb. 7, a day ahead of Seollal Lunar New Year’s Day,
visitors to the National Folk Museum of Korea enjoy playing theyunnori traditional four-stick board game.
Visitors to the National Folk Museum of Korea can see a model of an old street tram that used to run across Seoul in the 1940s,
as well as a reproduction of an old Seoul neighborhood from those times.
Jangseung and sotdae totem poles welcome visitors to the National Folk Museum of Korea.