Zocalo Plaza stands in the heart of Mexico City surrounded by cultural monuments past and present ― the largest Catholic cathedral on the Yucatan peninsula; cultural relics of the Aztec civilization, which died out at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors some 450 years ago; the national palace; and the cultural palace.
On November 23, an event was held in Zocalo Plaza to celebrate the opening of the first gallery of Korean art in all of South America, the Sala de Corea at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas, located at the far eastern end of the plaza. The opening event was attended by some 300 people, including Lee In-ho, president of the Korea Foundation; Rhee Jong-cheol, director of the National Folk Museum; and Chu Jin-yup, Korean ambassador to Mexico. The Mexican side was represented by well-known figures from Mexico? political, cultural, and media circles, including Teresa Franco, general director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, and Julieta Gil Elorduy, director of the Museo Nacional de las Culturas. The opening ceremony began with congratulatory addresses from both sides, followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by Lee In-ho and a tour of the new gallery. Live cultural performances included a traditional Korean fan dance and traditional Mexican mariachi music featuring guitars and violins, bringing the autumn night to life.
The Sala de Corea is the ninth gallery of Korean art to be opened around the world with support from the Korea Foundation since its support program to help establish Korean galleries in overseas museums was commenced in 1992.
Establishment of the Korean Gallery
The idea of establishing a gallery of Korean art in Mexico? Museo Nacional de las Culturas was first suggested in June 1997, following a summit meeting between the presidents of Korea and Mexico. The Museo requested support to establish such a gallery from the Korea Foundation, which agreed in 1998 to proceed with the project given the Museo? links with other cultural and historical facilities, its educational efforts, and other cultural benefits. However, while the Korea Foundation has focused on securing exhibition space for Korean galleries in other museums, in the case of the Museo Nacional de las Culturas, which had already promised to provide the exhibition space, the Foundation support was focused on acquiring actual items for display there.
After the initiation of the project, preparations proceeded steadily. Korea Foundation representatives visited the museum and agreed with museum officials to locate the proposed gallery on the second floor. The exhibition layout was discussed through continued contacts between the two sides, while the exhibition and budget planning was assigned to the National Folk Museum in Korea.
In February 1999, a representative of the folk museum visited Mexico to discuss details of the construction of the gallery and observe the actual conditions, while in July a detailed list of exhibition plans and exhibits was submitted to the Foundation. It was suggested that the theme of the exhibition be ? Retrospective of Korean History and Culture toward the 21st Century, with the exhibition items being arranged to depict Korean history and culture according to period. This plan mirrored the layout of the museum? existing Chinese and Japanese galleries while fulfilling the aspirations of the museum in regard to the Korean gallery.
A total of 66 exhibits were decided upon, including 15 relics from the Bronze Age, five ceramic works, nine items of clothing, 11 pieces of furniture, seven musical instruments, two astronomical devices, six paintings, and 11 wooden sculptures. The Korea Foundation adopted the final exhibition plan based on the proposal submitted by the National Folk Museum after consulting with Korean experts and officials of the Mexican museum, and then in November commissioned the Arts and Engineering Research Institute at Kaywon University of Arts to design the gallery. The final blueprints for the gallery were submitted in February 2000 and forwarded to the Mexican museum officials for the construction permits from the local authorities.
The Foundation and the National Folk Museum next embarked on a six-month project of securing the exhibition items. Aside from some original pieces of clothing and furniture, the two sides decided to create reproductions of existing National Treasures since the major function of the Museo Nacional de las Culturas is to serve as an educational resource for primary and secondary school students, while the export of Korean national treasures is generally prohibited by law.
In order to reproduce the selected items, the Korea Foundation first obtained permission from the Cultural Properties Administration and agreements from the National Museum and other museums in Korea that own the original items. In order to ensure the best reproductions possible, the Foundation commissioned 20 master craftsmen to do the work, most of whom have been designated ?ntangible cultural assets. In selecting the artists and overseeing the work, the Folk Museum provided invaluable advice and assistance, while the task of editing the Spanish signage and explanations for the exhibit items prepared by the National Folk Museum of Korea was undertaken by Silvia Seligson, curator of Asian art at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas.
The Arts and Engineering Research Institute at Kaywon University dispatched a work crew to Mexico in August to begin construction of the interior of the gallery including its lighting system. With the preparation of the exhibition items completed, all that was left was to ship and install the actual exhibits. Before the works were shipped to Mexico, the Foundation gathered a team of experts from academia and museum circles to appraise the reproductions. They judged the works to be of the highest quality, and in September the exhibits were shipped to Mexico. In late October, an exhibition installation team was sent to Mexico, and then in early November the gallery was completed and ready for visitors, some three years after the project was first suggested on the occasion of the Korea-Mexico presidential summit.
Cactus, soccer, the 1968 Mexico Olympics, tequila, the Mexican revolution, the IMF, and the recent presidential election that ended over 70 years of one-party rule are just some of the things that come to mind when Koreans think of Mexico. However, few realize that Mexico also possesses a rich cultural legacy that has produced a Nobel prize laureate in literature, many well-known architects and painters, and some 200 museums, including the world-class National Museum of Anthropology.1)
Meanwhile, most Mexicans understanding of Korea is at a similar rudimentary level as well, even though there are some 12,000 Koreans living in Mexico, which is emerging as Korea? most important trade partner in South America as economic relations between the two countries expand rapidly. All these developments, however, are quite recent phenomena, and according to Korean residents and embassy staff there, Mexicans basic knowledge of Korea actually goes somewhat further than the 2002 World Cup, the 1988 Seoul Olympics, mass demonstrations, and economic development.
The establishment of the Korean gallery at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas will not change the Mexican people? perception of Korean culture overnight. However, as many young Mexican students study the exhibits in the Korean gallery,2) it is expected they will learn that Korea has a unique culture different from those of China and Japan, and that like Mexico it has managed to maintain its cultural traditions despite a history of invasions by neighboring powers. Furthermore, if the descendents of the 1,033 Korean immigrants who departed from their homeland in 1905 on the 75-day journey to work in the fields of Mexico3) can find traces of their heritage in the Korean gallery, then the gallery will have been more than worth the effort.
1) Mexico? National Museum of Anthropology and National Museum of Culture (Museo Nacional de las Culturas) are both affiliated with the National Institute of Anthropology and History. On the occasion of the 1968 Mexico Olympics, many of the culture museum? exhibits were transferred to the museum of anthropology.
2) Primary school curriculum in Mexico City includes a visit to the Museo Nacional de las Culturas
3) There are an estimated 20,000 descendents of the first Korean immigrants to Mexico. The original immigrants became Mexican citizens and intermarried with locals, and as a result there are few full-blooded Korean descendents living in Mexico today.