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[Robert J. Fouser] Presenting art in broader context

One of my hobbies is visiting collections of Korean art in museums overseas. My most recent visit was the small collection of Korean art in the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most popular art museums in the US. 

The display shares a gallery with Chinese art, allowing space for only a few objects. Almost all the objects are Goryeo celadon stoneware from the 12th and 13th centuries. This is typical because Goryeo celadon and Joseon-period pottery dominate collections of Korean art overseas.

The visitors guide of the Art Institute of Chicago labels galleries devoted to Northeast Asian art as “Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Art.” The gallery spaces are divided clearly among the three countries, a practice that is common in most large museums. By contrast most other galleries in the Institute of Art are labeled by continent or period, such as “European Art before 1900,” “Arts of Africa,” and “Modern Art.” This is also common to many other museums.

Museums have different strengths and naturally organize their collections around those strengths. Some museums, for example, divide European art by nation, period, or a combination of both, such as “French Impressionism.” A museum with a substantial collection of Asian Art, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met), has enough objects to group by nation.

Decisions about how to group and display objects in a museum often reflect deep-seated ideas about the objects and their origin. What, then, does presentation of Korean art as separate from Chinese and Japanese art reflect?

Most obviously, it reflects the nationalist impulse to distinguish Korea from China and Japan. This is a natural response to trauma of Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, which was followed by national division and immense suffering during the Korean War. 

In the West, Korea was viewed as minor and overlooked in favor of China and Japan, both major powers with a long history of interaction with the West. Some Korean objects, such as several Goryeo-period Buddhist paintings in the Met that were misclassified as Japanese.

As South Korea gained stature on the world stage beginning in the 1990s, the government founded the Korea Foundation to raise Korea’s profile overseas through academic and cultural exchange. One of the KF’s most prominent programs has been to offer financial support to museums to set up a gallery dedicated to Korean art. As a result, the number of museums with a Korean art gallery has increased significantly over the last 20 years. Indeed, the Korean gallery at the Met was set up in 1998 with support from the KF and the Samsung Foundation of Culture.

The work of the KF and generous Korean donors has raised the profile of Korean art to level unimaginable a generation ago. Most of the world’s leading museums now have a gallery devoted to Korean art. Though smaller than galleries devoted to the art of Korea’s neighbors, these Korean art galleries successfully convey the message that Korea is distinct from China and Japan.

Several years ago, I asked a docent in the Met where the Korean gallery was. She gave directions and added that the gallery was small and that I should be careful not to miss it. Unlike the gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Korean gallery fills a moderate-sized room and displays more than pottery. But sitting at the end of the Chinese galleries, it feels like an isolated add-on to please generous donors rather than an integral part of the museum.

Now that most major museums have galleries devoted to Korean art, the focus needs to shift toward integrating the galleries into the museum. Greater focus on commonalities and influences in Northeast Asian art are important to understanding the depth of Korean art.

Korean art is unique not because it is isolated, but because it integrated influences from China into something new. Displaying Buddhist art from Korea, China, and Japan together, for example, would highlight what is uniquely Korean amid broader commonalities. Korean pottery greatly influenced Japanese pottery, as a display of objects from both countries together would show.

To promote the presentation of Korean art in regional context, the KF and other organizations should encourage thematic displays that transcend the confines of the Korean gallery. The creative adaptation of influences in art throughout history have helped set the stage for contemporary adaptations of outside influences that manifest themselves most clearly in K-pop and other forms of pop culture. The time has come to tell this story.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.