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Inaccurate artifacts removed from Korean exhibition in Germany

By Kim Hae-yeon

Published : Oct. 23, 2023 - 14:57

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A photograph titled A photograph titled "Water Bearer" from the Joseon era, which the Humboldt Forum recently took down from its special exhibition in Berlin (Yonhap)

The Humboldt Forum in Berlin has removed pieces from its special exhibition of Korean artifacts in response to reports of inaccuracies in the displayed information, the National Museum of Korea said Monday.

The exhibition, titled "Ari-Arirang," was aimed to commemorate the 140th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Germany and to introduce Korean traditions and culture. Opened on Oct. 12, the exhibition is scheduled to run until April 21, 2024.

About 120 items from some 1,800 Korean artifacts and photos held by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, most of them dating from the 14th to the early 20th century collected primarily by Germans, are on display at the Humboldt Forum.

A photograph titled "Water Bearer" from the Joseon era, which depicts a woman holding a jar on her head with exposed breasts, has been removed from the exhibition.

Originally, the photo was attributed to Adolf Fischer, who was thought to have taken the photo during his five-week visit to Korea in 1905, while working at the German Embassy in Beijing.

However, research suggests that the photo is more likely to have been taken by a Japanese photographer and which had been in circulation as early as the mid-1890s. The photo was later featured in a compiled album of Korean customs and landscapes published by the Japanese-run Gyeongseong Photo Studio in 1907, according to the National Museum of Korea.

The accompanying caption at the exhibition stated that starting in the mid-Joseon era, women took great pride in bearing sons because only sons had the right to carry on the family name and inherit assets. Lower-class women were depicted revealing their nursing breasts, symbolizing their pride in having given birth to sons, the caption said.

Kim Kyung-hyup, a member of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, raised the issue of inaccuracies at the German museum exhibition during the parliamentary audit of the Korean Embassy in Germany on Saturday. Kim pointed out that the explanation reinforced a perception of Joseon culture as "inferior" and "uncivilized," as intended by Japan at the time of its circulation.

A Japanese traditional hairpin is erroneously identified as a A Japanese traditional hairpin is erroneously identified as a "binyeo," a Korean hair ornament, at the Humboldt Forum's special exhibition of Korean artifacts. The artifact has since been removed. (Yonhap)

The Humboldt Forum removed another artifact that was initially presented as a Korean hairpin from the early 20th century, which was in fact a traditional Japanese women's hair accessory, known as "kanzashi." A few other Korean artifacts on display had incorrect information, according to Korean media reports.

The exhibition is part of an initiative the Culture Ministry took in December 2021, in which it entered into a three-year agreement with the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation to support the Korean gallery at the museum. The ministry provided 480,000 euros ($507,000) for the project.

In March, the Humboldt Forum sent a partial list of the artifacts' information to the National Museum of Korea and the Korean Cultural Center in Germany for review. However, not all information was provided at the time, the NMK said. For example, the photo of the woman with jar and the Japanese hairpin were not on the list that it received in March, according to the national museum. It was able to obtain the photos of artifacts and their captions only after the exhibition opened through the Korean Cultural Center in Germany, which took the photos at the exhibition, the national museum said.

The Humboldt Forum in Berlin (Yonhap) The Humboldt Forum in Berlin (Yonhap)

"There are currently 16 pieces under review, and there is a possibility that additional corrections may be needed," an NMK researcher working on the matter told The Korea Herald on Monday.

The NMK plans to deliver its suggested revisions to the Humoldt Forum by Tuesday, according to the researcher.