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Korean Gallery Opens at the British Museum

Sohn Hee-jeong
Cultural Exchange Team
Anyone who has visited the British Museum will probably remember feeling great satisfaction and even awe at finding so many of the very artifacts that one had once studied in school, including the Rosetta stone, the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamen, and the Elgin marbles, as well as the exquisite ceramics and paintings of China and Japan. Indeed, visitors to the museum often lose themselves in the wonders of discovering the art, culture, and history of mankind. Now visitors to the museum will also finally be able to enjoy the beautiful ceramic works and fine paintings of Korea's Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), and even the re-creation of a traditional Korean house that reflects the lifestyle and culture of ancient Koreans.

On November 8, the opening ceremony for the Korea Foundation Gallery at the British Museum was held with some 400 guests from both Britain and Korea in attendance. The participating dignitaries included Richard Alexander, Duke of Gloucester; Chris Smith, U.K. Minister of Culture; and Peter Mandelson, Minister for Northern Ireland; Choi Seong-hong, Korean ambassador to the U.K.; and Lee In-ho, Korea Foundation president, as well as some 20 leading figures from Korea's arts and cultural community.
The event was heavily covered by the local media, including the BBC, AP, and numerous local newspapers and broadcasters, highlighting the importance of the opening of a gallery for Korean art at one of the world? most prestigious museums. Of note, the dinner reception was even attended by Park Jong-il and Jeong Soon-won, North Korean representatives to the International Monetary Organization (IMO) in London, which attested to the mood of reconciliation between North and South Korea.

Within the museum itself, the Korea Foundation Gallery is easy to find, located on the third floor of the Edward VII wing. It is the largest of all the Korean galleries in the United States and Europe, with an area of approximately 400m2 and featuring some 250 exhibits covering the panorama of Korean art, history, and culture, from the prehistoric age through the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties and on to modern times. The highlight of the exhibit is the replica of a traditional Korean sarangbang (the men? quarters of a traditional Korean house), modeled after Noandang in Unhyeongung Palace in Seoul. Exemplifying traditional Korean architecture and lifestyle, it consists of two rooms and a wooden verandah, which vividly reflects the elegance and refinement of the living quarters of Joseon Dynasty gentlemen-scholars. The sarangbang, which is the first such architectural reproduction to be installed as part of a permanent exhibition at the museum, generated considerable attention from local scholars and the press since the arrival of 13 Korean craftsmen and artisans in London in June for the construction of the exhibit.

As the British Museum is known to be somewhat conservative in allowing different galleries to be designed independently, it was thus rather exceptional for the museum to have allowed the Korea Foundation Gallery to be designed as a typically Korean environment. The designer designated by the museum to take charge of the Korean gallery project was dispatched to Korea to observe preparations for the construction of the sarangbang and study the images, mood, and atmosphere of traditional Korean aesthetics. The results are well reflected in the gallery? Korean-style window frames, flooring, and exhibition panels. The walls are finished in white, which contributes to a bright and spacious feeling despite the numerous internal columns dividing up the exhibition area.

The ultimate character of a gallery is best expressed by the items on exhibit. The opening displayed of the Korea Foundation Gallery exhibited around 250 items including many works previously introduced to the public as part of the museum? ?rts of Korea exhibit that was on display from 1997 to 1999. Major pieces of the opening exhibit included ?heongjajinsadangchomunwan, a celadon bowl with underglazed copper-red decoration; the ?waeomgyeongbyeonsangdo illustrated manuscript of the Amitabha Sutra; ?ajeon-gukhwadangchomungyeongham, a lacquer sutra box with inlaid mother-of-pearl decoration; and a white porcelain ?ull-moon jar from the Joseon Dynasty recently acquired by the museum. The exhibition also included a number of artifacts on loan from other institutions, including a Royal Ritual Manuscript from the British Library celebrating the wedding ceremony of Prince Sado and Hye-gyeonggung Hong-ssi, and an 18th century eight-panel folding screen from Cambridge University? Whipple Museum featuring astrological symbols from the Joseon Dynasty. In addition, the exhibit presented some 20 archeological artifacts, ornaments, and stone Buddhist figures from the Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Three Kingdoms periods on loan from the National Museum of Korea.
Over the past eight years, a number of Korean specialists have participated in the establishment of the British Museum? Korea Foundation Gallery through the provision of their expert advice and active cooperation. Nonetheless, the success of this gallery was really made possible by the positive attitude of the British Museum, which managed to incorporate the numerous requests and pieces of advice from the Korean side. The Korea Foundation is particularly grateful to Chung Yang-mo, former director of the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, who oversaw the sarangbang project and overall installation of the exhibit, and Shin Young-hoon, director of the Educational Center for Traditional Korean Houses, who was responsible for the design and construction of the sarangbang. Under Chung? supervision, numerous artists and craftsmen participated in the creation of the sarangbang exhibit. The Foundation also extends many thanks to these artisans who put their own artistic work aside to re-create various items for the exhibit, including woodwork artist Son Duk-kyun, brazier maker Kim Yong-cheol, lamp maker Lee Jong-bom, bambooware artist Yun Byeong-hun, and traditional paper craftsman Lee Byeong-chan. It is thanks to these artists and their dedication to keeping alive Korea? handicraft traditions that the sarangbang exhibit could be rendered with such realistic accuracy. Finally, our sincere appreciation to Jane Portal, the Korean gallery curator at the British Museum, who has worked so tirelessly despite many difficulties over the past several years to prepare for the opening of the Korea Foundation Gallery.

A number of other exhibits of Korean art exist in Britain, including Korean galleries in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Cambridge University? Fitzwilliam Museum, and a small Korean collection at the Scotland National Museum. The British Museum currently houses some 3,000 Korean artifacts, which not only constitutes the largest Korean collection in Britain but also has served as an important cultural link between the two countries over the last century. The establishment of a permanent Korean gallery in this museum is thus one of the most prominent symbols of the friendship that has developed since the two countries first established formal relations in 1883. As a result, cultural and arts exchanges between Korea and Britain are now more active than ever, and it is expected that the Korea Foundation Gallery will play a central role in such activities in the future.

Certainly, anyone with a chance to visit England anytime soon should make it a point to visit the Korea Foundation Gallery at the British Museum. It will be well worth their while.

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