Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong seems to have barely weathered a storm of public censure with sincere explanations about his alleged remarks hinting the possibility of returning to Japan Buddhist statues that a group of Koreans stole from Tsushima.
He faced sudden embarrassment when the Japanese media quoted their Culture Minister Hakubun Shimomura, coming from a meeting with Korean and Chinese culture ministers in Gwangju last week, as saying that Korea would be considering sending the stolen artifacts back to Japan. Yoo said he had only diplomatically referred to the issue by saying that his administration would be waiting for a Korean court decision on a request from a Korean Buddhist temple which claims to be the original owner of one of the statues.
The episode once again revealed the high temperature of sensitivity with which Koreans, Japanese and every other people react to matters related to the ownership of their cultural properties held overseas. Artifacts ― statues, paintings, ceramics, ornaments and even heavy stone monuments ― have been shipped across national borders by invading armies, merchants and thieves over the many centuries of human history. Governments and people are trying to get them back through diplomatic efforts and oftentimes buying them from their present owners.
It is a matter of national pride that people want to keep works of art produced by their ancestors. We feel so sorry when we learn that some ancient Korean books, porcelains and bronze statues are being kept in dark vaults of museums overseas and in the warehouses of foreign collectors. So, there was the hard process of “retrieving” the Joseon Kingdom “Uigwe” or the royal recording of ritual proceedings which was taken away from a royal library on Ganghwado Island during the French invasion in 1866.
These books, with fine drawings of the royal wedding processions or other ceremonial events, and detailed descriptions of preparations that demonstrate the highly sophisticated dynastic culture, were put on public display upon their arrival in Seoul from Paris two years ago. They are now held by the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, permanently “on loan” from the National Library of France. It was a great relief that these precious cultural properties were brought to light after remaining on the shelf of a dark storeroom in a foreign library for a century and half.
Not all Korean artifacts overseas share the same fate as the Joseon Uigwe. Many are on display in the Korea galleries of major exhibition facilities for the appreciation of visitors from all over the world. The British Museum, for example, has nearly 1,000 Korean cultural properties, some which are shown in the permanent display in the Asian section. The Administration of Cultural Heritage here once said it had confirmed that as many as 76,143 Korean cultural relics are held overseas ― 34,369 in Japan, 18,635 in the United States, 6,610 in Britain, 5,221 in Germany and the rest in other countries. They include national treasure-level artifacts, while many are ancient coins.
Touring overseas and visiting museums between packed schedules, we are glad to see Silla earthenware, Goryeo celadon, Joseon paintings and gilt-bronze Buddhist statues in the Korea galleries of foreign museums. But soon we feel a little frustrated when comparing the size and variety of Korean collections to those in the Japanese and Chinese compartments. There have been constant criticisms of what the media deplored as meager government efforts to help replenish the Korean exhibits in major overseas museums.
Many here must remember the name Gregory Henderson, a former cultural attache in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul who died in 1988. For some time he was regarded as a persona non grata after it was known that he had taken numerous cultural items out of Korea when he was returning to the U.S. Civic groups here initiated a campaign in the 1980s to press him to return those Korean artifacts, which they determined to have been taken out of the country illegitimately. I had contributed a feature article to Asiaweek magazine on these moves. Henderson, who was then teaching at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, responded with a lengthy letter to the editor of the magazine.
I remember he argued on three points. He said, first, he did not violate Korean law when he collected the artifacts, mostly buying them from vendors; second, he was helped by Korean experts, including the top arts historian Choi Sun-woo, when he was sorting them out for shipment to the United States; and third, he believed that Korea must do its share of promoting culture and art by offering its historical heritage for the appreciation of the world’s people, meaning allowing him to keep those items, instead of trying to bring them home just for preservation.
After his death at the age of 66 as a result of injuries from a fall in Massachusetts, his wife donated his collection to the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Harvard University, his alma mater. The donation included nearly 150 items representing every ceramic type produced in Korea between the 5th and 19th centuries. The Harvard museum has held special exhibitions of the Henderson collection, which it defines as the most comprehensive assemblage of Korean ceramics outside East Asia, since the first in 1992.
The Sackler Museum boasts of housing one of the finest collections of Asian art in the United States. So, it undoubtedly is a major outlet that we may target as a channel to introduce Korean cultural heritage to international viewers through world tours of our artifacts. If Henderson had complied with the Korean demand in the 1980s and returned all or part of his collection, our cultural authorities would have taken a lot of trouble to arrange overseas exhibitions of similar relics at such places as the Sackler Museum, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the British Museum.
Regarding the question of returning the stolen statues, an editorial of this newspaper said the other day that the issue of retrieving cultural properties abroad needs to be addressed on historical, moral and logical grounds. I often doubt that making exhaustive efforts to bring Korean artifacts back home is the best thing to do in this age of globalization and “Hallyu.”
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer of The Korea Herald. ― Ed.