Back To Top

Art of restoration

Members of the National Museum of Korea’s conservation team restore a damaged Joseon painting in their office in Seoul on March 28. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
Members of the National Museum of Korea’s conservation team restore a damaged Joseon painting in their office in Seoul on March 28. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
National Museum  restores two Joseon paintings owned by  the British Museum

It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon, and the office of the National Museum of Korea’s conservation team is busy.

Located on the first floor of the National Museum, the high-ceiling office specializes in restoring damaged paintings and prints.

The process is arduous. A large painting from the late Joseon period is on the table, and two scholars, dressed in doctor-like gowns, are leaning over the piece. Using their tweezers and small brushes, they glue tiny bits of silk, some as short as two millimeters, onto the damaged spots of the painting.

“This is all we do everyday, nine to six,” says Cheon Ju-hyun, the leader of the three-member team. “This particular artwork was painted on silk paper, so we use actual silk pieces to fill the ruined spots. We try to cut each of the silk pieces so they exactly match the shape of the spots and other flaws.”

Cheon, who has been working at the National Museum as a conservator since 2002, recently started a special restoration project requested from overseas. His team is to restore two Joseon paintings owned by the British Museum. The paintings ― “Six-fold Screen on the Sun, Moon and Five Peaks” and “Seated Buddha and Two Attendant Bodhisattvas” ― arrived last October from the U.K., for their two-year stay in Korea for restoration.

The British museum purchased the paintings from unknown sellers in the 1950s. According to Cheon, it is the first time a foreign institution has asked Korea to restore Korean cultural relics.

“I believe they only have Japanese and Chinese scholars who specialize in the restoration of Asian paintings,” says Cheon. “Our team’s goal is to restore the paintings so they can get their original look, without Chinese or Japanese touches.”

One of the elements that his team focuses on, Cheon says, is the mounting of the paintings. Looking at the two paintings in his office, Cheon says the pieces need to go through “a transformation” to regain their original appearance.

From his research, Cheon discovered that “Six-fold Screen on the Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks” was created during the late Joseon period. A similar painting was used for a “Sapbyeong,” a large dressing stand used in royal palaces.

“We’ve told the British Museum that we’d eventually like to restore the painting in the form of the dressing stand,” says Cheon, touching the crack of the painting, which he says has a Japanese-style mounting. “Mounting is what completes a painting. If it’s done incorrectly, we cannot say the piece has been completely restored.”

The other painting, “Seated Buddha and Two Attendant Bodhisativas,” underwent a series of X-ray examinations upon arrival in Korea. The Buddhist painting, which Cheon assumes to have been stolen from a Korean temple in the early 1950s, was revealed to be seriously damaged. From the X-ray results, Cheon discovered that the painting originally had six Bodhisattvas (meaning “enlightened beings”), instead of the two that are visible in the piece.

“I don’t know what the person’s intention was, but he painted to cover four Bodhisattvas out of the six,” Cheon says. “It’s going to be a very difficult process to get rid of the paint on top of the four hidden Bodhisattvas. But I think it needs to be done to restore it completely.”

A conservator with nearly 20 years of experience, Cheon said this project is meaningful as he gets to provide an opportunity for foreigners to see Korean paintings restored in an authentic Korean style ― though it’s owned by the British Museum.

According to the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, more than 140,000 Korean cultural artifacts are owned by overseas institutions and individuals. Last year, Korea’s ancient royal documents, “Uigwe” were returned from Paris, 145 years after they were looted during a French raid. Japan also returned nearly 1,200 copies of Uigwe in December of the same year.

“Well, there are a lot of Korean relics that are housed overseas,” Cheon says.

“I think this project can be the first step in forming a scholarly interaction between Korea and foreign countries about the Korean relics stored overseas.

“I don’t think Korea should try to retrieve every single relic that’s housed overseas, but it’s important for Korean scholars to examine and research them, regardless of where they are, and provide accurate information. That way people in foreign countries will gain a correct understanding of Korea’s cultural relics and history.”

Once the restoration is completed, the two paintings will be sent back to the U.K., where they may be showcased in an exhibition hall dedicated to Korean art and relics, said Cheon.

By Claire Lee (