Henry Cole lecture 2009: Professor Hongnam Kim

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Thank you for the very generous introduction of me. And I thank all of you for coming this evening to hear my lecture. It is really wonderful to be here - this time Mother Nature finally allowed me to fly into this part of globe. I was very sorry for the postponement of my lecture [which] has inconvenienced many, including my colleagues at the V&A. Before I left Korea, I went through a Google Search to find out who Henry Cole was – because I did not know about him – and found out really wonderful things about him and felt his contribution was so great in British cultural history, particularly for this eminent museum, and I was very honoured and humbled.

My talk today is about the national museums of the People's Republic of China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea and the issue of cultural nationalism at these institutions. Japan was the first in Asia to launch national museums in the late 19th century, starting with the Tokyo National museum, followed by the Kyoto and Nara National Museums. The country now possesses about 4,000 museums. The Republic of Korea (hereafter called Korea) launched its central museum (National Museum) in 1945, absolving the Imperial Household Museum which existed from 1908 and of the Kyongju Museum. Korea now boasts about 1,000 museums. The first national museum which the People's Republic of China (hereafter called China) created was the National History Museum in 1915, followed by the Palace Museum in 1925 and the Museum of Chinese Revolution in 1961. China has set out to have more than 3,000 museums within a few more years. The seats of its 33 provinces already have their own museums, often of impressive scale. The museum fever is spreading in Asia. Economic prosperity and political stability obviously are the major driving force behind such an increase of museums in Asia.

These museums have followed the models of the West in their mission to preserve natural and manmade heritage, disseminate knowledge, and educate people, offering authentic experiences though exhibitions and education programmes. Nevertheless, one peculiarity observed from these institutions is the presence of cultural nationalism of varying intensity, which can be discerned from their collections and other programmes.

As proven by their birth years, cultural nationalism is indeed their birthmark; a powerful driving force in the colonial and post-colonial era, multilayered but with different agendas, it helped these museums join in nation-building or nation-rebuilding, and in consolidating national identity. But when too prevailing, or when left inmost, it can continue to shape all programmes, knowingly and unknowingly, promoting prejudice and disrespect among the people of three countries. It can even take a form of cultural imperialism in which hegemony (in a cultural sense) is the explicit goal of the nation states in relation to foreign cultures, as seen during the colonial period. National museums are the foremost example of social institutions of these three nations that are shaped in the penetrating process of corresponding (being attracted, pressured, and even forced) and even promoting the values of cultural nationalism. The outcome can be unhealthy and anti-educational, especially for children and the youths.

It was this issue of cultural nationalism which was of major concern during my tenure as the Director of Korea's National Museum. The question was how much of it is a necessity, and how much of it should be expelled to make the Asian community a healthier and more friendly one with mutual tolerance and respect. In this rapidly changing social world, there isn't much for us to hang onto. Museums, and perhaps universities and libraries, may remain as the last institutions for spiritual comforts, purification, and the reassurance of human dignity.

Now, first, let me brief you on the nature of cultural nationalism in the region. Then I will move on to describe how cultural nationalism was operating in the past, and what sorts of change have occurred to affect these museums in recent years. I must say that the subject turned out to be so loaded that it was like disturbing a beehive. I hope you will bear with me.

Cultural Nationalism and National Museums in East Asia

The first is the cultural nationalism and the national museums of East Asia. Cultural nationalism in East Asia is deeply rooted in the region’s geopolitical history. While I talk, I shall have on the screen a moving cultural map of 2000 years for the region as a simple historical survey. The dramatic changes in this map are the result of bloody wars, conquests, colonisation, and independence struggles which involved nearly 60 ethnic people-groups in the East Asian region. Included are the Han Chinese, the Korean and the Japanese who became the final winners in the region as of today. Naturally, ethnic solidarity, patriotism and nationalism were the strongest weapons in these struggles for ethnic and national survival and politic and cultural hegemony. The map ends with the colonial period when Japan nearly succeeded in taking over the entire region, only stopped by the atomic bombing of its mainland in 1945. During these dramatic turns of events, grievances, mistrust, hostility, hatred, racism, bigotry, vengeance, protectionism and ultra-nationalism were incubated and cultivated against each other. It took forms of anti-Japanese sentiment in China and Korea, anti-Chinese sentiment in Korea and Japan, and anti-Korean sentiment in Japan. Among all the countries which participated in the BBC World Service Poll in 2007 and 2008, 2009, South Korea and the People's Republic of China were the only ones whose majorities have strong anti-Japanese sentiment.

The map is still in flux. There has also been the continued territorial dispute over some islands currently controlled and claimed by Japan, but claimed also by China. Japan and Korea are still in debate over the Island of Dokdo in the shared sea of Korea and Japan. Still, numerous issues from the time of Japanese rule continue to generate ill-feeling in China and Korea. It has a lot to do with Japan's refusal to admit and apologize for its wrongdoings, refusal to compensate the victims, and to continue distorting history in school textbooks. The fact is that there can be no forgiveness if one does not ask for it, or wants to be forgiven.

The political situation has also gotten much more complicated owing to the division of Korea by the warlike, communist north [one slide is lost] and the pragmatic, democratic-capitalist south, a precarious situation which offers ground for political manipulation to China and Japan - the former siding with the North for its own interest, the latter as a reason for undue military build-up. China's recent annexation of Tibet and the land of Uyghur has made all their moves in the region suspicious of hidden intentions. Threatening is also the fact that China can exercise a vote in the Security Council at the UN. Japan has been nervous and defensive as China and Korea have posed serious challenges and threats by encroaching upon its share of world trade. With the memory of the pre-Modern era when China exerted its political dominance and cultural imperialism on them, Korea and Japan are cautiously watching China’s recent rise as a world power. We do not really know how this map will change in the future.

This time-old, threesome affair resulted in an interesting phenomenon, that much of the cultural nationalism has been internally oriented within the region. But now it comes to have an added dimension as they are interwoven in the global competition in economy and culture. It is either to reclaim the mastership of Asian culture to the world as in the case of China (well felt at the opening ceremony for the 2009 Summer Olympic in China); or to rebuke such a claim in the case of Japan (holding to its past glory) or to prove its own significance and cultural identity in the case of Korea (as revealed by the new national museum building). All three are involved in globalization but largely without forsaking cultural nationalism. This is in line with what Henry Kissinger wrote in his article, 'Price of Globalization' (for a newspaper of Abhu Dabhi. Gulf News, May 27, 2008). I quote, 'For the first time in history, a genuine global economic system has come into being with the prospect of heretofore unimagined well-being. At the same time - paradoxically - the process of globalization tempts a nationalism that threatens its fulfillment'. Yes, it is true that the trend of globalization fired up cultural nationalism in a new way, however more inclined towards contest than the earlier oppression and aggression among three countries. Globalization has inspired regional solidarity and alliance to guard the region against the powerful outsider. There has not been the formation of an Asian Union like the European Union. It may not be possible as long as two ideologies, namely communism and democracy, co-exist in conflict in Asia.

Now let us turn to the museums themselves. Given the time limit I shall refrain from giving you too many details for each museum under discussion. First, national museums of China.

National museums of China

There was a time when the Chinese culture was represented by the two great national museums; the Palace Museum, Beijing, in that Forbidden City and the National Palace Museum, Taipei. But in the last ten years, The Communist Party decided to create a new national museum of China by merging the existing History museum and the Revolutionary Museum attached to the Tiananmen Square. It is due to open within this year. In a rather dusty condition, rarely visited, it had been more famous since 1990 for its Countdown Billboard hung on its 313 meters long façade for such events as the resumption of China's sovereignty of Hong Kong (1997) and of Macau (1998), and for the Beijing Olympics 2008, as you see here. And it was recently for the 2010 Shanghai Expo. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has recently handed over to the Museum about 400,000 cultural relics in its possession, as an addition to the existing 600,000 items. Major archaeological discoveries heretofore housed in provincial museums will be presented on a rotation basis. When it opens, the exhibition space of 192,000 square metres will more than double the previous space. It will have 28 new exhibition halls and state of the art exhibition facilities and storage. The Museum will become one of the largest in the word, not to mention in Asia. The collection is to cover the Chinese culture from the Paleolithic period through to the end of Qing dynasty, as well as all the mementos for the achievements of the Red Army leading to the founding of PRC. Obviously cultural nationalism will remain a strong undercurrent geared by the State.

The Palace Museum collection in the Forbidden City shares the Ming and Qing imperial collection with the National Palace Museum Taipei. Quite a number of objects from this collection also went overseas during the chaotic time of dynastic collapse and in the early part of the 20th century. Limited by the nature of the space and the collection, the Museum could not extend its programmes much beyond its holdings. However, lately it managed to create a space for special exhibitions for international loan exhibitions; it has held such exhibitions as the one from Vienna’s royal collection.

Both museums have not held Asia-related exhibitions in their history as far as I know. In 2007, however, when I met the Director of the new National Museum, he revealed a plan to install a permanent space to show Asian art on a rotation basis. It would be interesting to see what will be the fundamental concept of exhibitions for this Asia Gallery; would it be [based on] cultural diversity, cultural relativism, or continued cultural imperialism? [Would it express] objectivity and aesthetic appreciation? Would it be too hopeful to imagine that they will try to show the East Asian culture flourished as a creative extension of, and eventual independence from, the Chinese culture as exemplified in Western art history and by the great Western museums which have recognized all important achievements of different countries and regions in the West. China’s nationalism and cultural nationalism coming from both the state and the people were understandable at a time when China, having escaped from the crisis, felt insecure of its national and cultural identity, and defensive of Western culture.

Now time has changed. It is hopeful that Chinese historians, art historians and aesthetic minds who would come forward to link all Asian culture and art in a holistic approach. Hopefully, China, a big country, stands with a big mind to embrace cultural and ethnic diversity and history of the region and redefine its larger role in the region. Again hopefully there will be no more of the old Han-Chinese mentality that 'We are the center of the world, we are the sum of Asian culture'.

Now let us move on to the national museums of Japan.

National museums of Japan

Unlike China and Korea whose holding of cultural relics, both public and private, is much limited to the heritage of their own people, Japan’s holdings cover a diverse range from its own to the Western art and to that of Asia, especially of China and Korea. The country’s East Asian holding began very early on, when Buddhism was accepted as state-religion, initiated by the regent prince Shotoku Taishi and the ruling Soga family of Korean origin in the late 6th century. The building of Buddhist temples in their political centre Asuka called for the import of Buddhist artists and temple builders from Korea, whose descendants were mobilized to build the world’s oldest surviving wooden architecture, the Horyuji temple, the images within.

From the Nara period of the 8th century Japan turned away from Korea to Tang China and its culture with great enthusiasm. A large number of Chinese cultural relics began to pour into Japan as well testified by the Shoso-in imperial treasury in Nara. Another large-scale import of Korean craftsmen took place during the Japanese invasion of Korea during the reign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the last decade of the 16th century. During this war, the peninsular was reduced to ashes and all palaces and Buddhist temples were sacked before burning. The Japanese taste for Korean ceramics developed under the influence of Senno Rikyu, the famous tea master and connoisseur in the house of Hideyoshi. The daimiao of Kyushu was the last to join the War under the condition that their reward will be the Korean potters (a large number of potters were taken to Kyushu as captives) This resulted in the rise of Kyushu as the centre of ceramics in Japan and in the world. Thus this war has been popularly called in Japan and Korea as the 'Ceramic War'.

This imported continental culture became the foundation for the Japanese to invent its own unique culture from the Heian period on. Another significant inflow, this time from China, was in the field of painting. Masterpieces of Chinese painting of Southern Song, rejected by China’s literati collectors, entered the treasury of Japanese monasteries in Kyoto and resulted in a great flowering of Japanese ink painting with such masters as Josetsu and Sesshu of the 15th century. This list of Japan's importation of Chinese and Korean art can go on and on until the last large-scale inflow of Chinese and Korean art and crafts during the colonial period.

Such respect and admiration for the Chinese and Korean culture began to switch to that of disrespect at a certain point in Japan's history. The first sign appeared during the reigning years of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, an expansionist himself, with an ambition to conquer and plunder Korea and China. But the decisive turning point came with the Meiji Restoration of the imperial power during which time cultural imperialism began to prevail Japan. As Asia’s first industrialized country with a modernized army, Japan struggled to attain equality with the Western Powers which otherwise would have colonize the country [they believed]. A decision to distinguish itself from the rest of backward, inferior Asia called for its policy of 'Separation-from-Asia'. In other words Japan no longer wished to be a part of Asian civilization from this point. It is uncertain whether contemporary Japan has completely abandoned such a notion.

A rich depository of Chinese and Korean cultural relics has been handed down to the present mostly in pristine condition. It was possible thanks to the very special sense of care and preservation of all things of the Japanese people and the absence of foreign invasion in Japanese history except for the civil wars, which luckily left temples and imperial palaces mostly intact. At times when Japan’s economy slows, the Chinese and Korean art objects surface on the international market, whose sellers are from Japan. Such richness of East Asian cultural relics would have been enough for Japan to possess a museum in match to the biggest institutions of the West to showcase the Asian civilization and culture. But it is not the case with the state-run national museums. But some private collections of Chinese and Korean art which did go public, namely the Sumitomo Collection, the Idemitsu Collection for Chinese art, and the Ataka Collection for Korean ceramics which eventually entered the Osaka Museum of Oriental Ceramic Art.

Although the Tokyo National Museum[now you've already seen the slide of the Museum] has maintained one separate building called Toyokan devoted to Asian art. It has been left dusty with little signs of curatorial activities for a long time, not to mention the depressing state of Korean art display on the 3rd floor with few visitors. Kyoto and Nara National Museums would have Chinese art on small-scale displays, but Korean art is shown sporadically and is mostly limited to the Buddhist context. I used to comment on this observation when I saw the directors of the Tokyo National Museum. They would smile back at me in agreement, and talk about the lack of acquisition fund and their future renovation plans for the Toyokan. They also expressed an honest concern over the possibility of a repatriation dispute with China and Korea, once on public display - an issue too large and delicate to cover in today's talk.

One positive note to end this part of the talk on Japan is that there has been a significant change in the governance of national museums in Japan as part of the national government's administrative reform programme. In 2001, three formerly independent national museums - Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara National Museums - merged under the official name of the corporate entity called Independent Administrative Institution (IAI) National Museum [a long name!]. In 2005, a fourth institution was added - the Kyushu National Museum. In 2007, this museum entity is again merged with the National Research Institutes for Cultural Properties consisted of the Tokyo and Nara Research Institute. Finally all brought under the Independent Administrative Institution National Institutes for Cultural Heritage.

As a long-term goal, Japan's National Museum aims to enhance its function as an educational facility, and as a platform for international cultural exchanges and the dissemination of Japanese culture. Short term planning is focused on improving the efficiencies of operation and enhancing the range of services provided to the public, and consolidating the museums' financial position.

This consolidation, however, meant the restructuring of manpower by cutting at least one-fifth of the staff; it also meant the reduction of government budget by about 40 percent, as well as the staff rotation among the institutions. Still experimental at this stage, it has brought hardship on the staff who had been so used to the old system. But, eventually they may enjoy, probably and hopefully, 40 percent of independence from the Government. Now we will wait and see what our museum colleagues in Japan will do with this newly acquired freedom, as spelled out in their mission statement, and whether they will be able to turn this freedom into the freedom from Japan’s own burden of the past.

Now, let me move on to the National Museum of Korea, the last museum I will be talking about.

National Museums of Korea

Historically a significant sign of Korea's burgeoning cultural nationalism appeared in relation to China, which was the invention of Korean alphabet in the early 15th century. Initiated by King Sejong, the project was to resolve the discrepancy between the spoken language of its own and the written one borrowed from the Chinese writing, and the resultant high illiteracy. The project was carried out as a top secret, kept from both the Ming Chinese government and the Korean Sino-sycophants who would have opposed it as a challenge to China’s political and cultural authority. As a small country, adjoined to the Chinese mainland, Korea had to endure the domineering attitude of China for its survival, but not without mixed feelings throughout its pre-modern history. Nevertheless, Koreans have kept basic respect for China as a cradle of East Asian civilization.

But the case of Japan is quite different. Historically the Korean people considered the Japanese culture being at the receiving end under its own influence. Thus the two Japanese invasions in the last decades of the 16th century came as great shock to Korea and resulted in the initial anti-Japanese sentiment among its people. However, it was Japan’s colonial rule over Korea for 36-years from 1910 through to 1945 that caused the fully-fledged anti-Japanese movement. Recorded as the most atrocious in the world's colonial history, Japan set out to erase Korea's core identity, artificially replacing the local religion and language with its own. It was indeed heretofore the worst practice of cultural imperialism. It was during these colonial years that Japan also developed prejudice towards Koreans, labeling them as the inferior people to be ruled. In the year of 1965 twenty years after the liberation when the government of two countries agreed to open a diplomatic relationship, there were demonstrations and riots throughout the country against the decision, which I myself witnessed vividly as a junior-high student at the time.

The very fact that the new Korean government established the National Museum in 1945, the very same year of liberation is very telling of the museum’s significance in the process of nation-building and consolidating national identity. The collection was meagre [to start with], made up of the Royal collection of rather mediocre quality. [This picture shows small building in the palace complex which housed the collection] The only non-Korean objects were the Han Chinese material excavated in Lolang, the present Pyongyang of North Korea and the Otani collection of Central Asian Buddhist art, both of which were left behind by accident when the Japanese left Korea hurriedly after the surrender. The only hope for enhancing the collection was archaeological discoveries of ancient tombs, Buddhist monastic sites, and old ceramic kiln sites. This is the reason why the department of archaeology has been the most powerful at the National Museum of Korea. Six out of eight Directors were archaeologists before me, in its history. Nothing Japanese was allowed in the Museum, which reflected the nearly hysterical anti-Japanese mood of the society at the time in all spheres.

This anti-Japanese sentiment was a major source for cultural nationalism in the post-colonial era of Korea. However, after the Seoul Summer Olympics of 1988 things began to change. Hosting the event successfully, Korea earned international recognition and gained confidence and pride. There sprouted quiet wishes to be free from the heavy burden of the colonial past. All felt the 50th anniversary of the liberation in 1995 was the time to do something about it - either to vent out the emotion or to overcome it. The government decided it had to be the demolishment of the Japanese Government’s colonial building, the ultimate symbol of Japanese rule and of Japanese imperialism. There was an intense public debate on the issue. The President and his cabinet, and other demolition proponents argued that the building was a symbol of Japanese rule that had been built deliberately to deface the Palace of Gyeongbokgung and to weaken the geomantic potent of the city. Opponents countered that Korea, now a prosperous country, should no longer be troubled by such symbolism and that the reminders of the Japanese era were needed as historical lesson to future generations. Indeed the building was the scene of numerous historical events, housing first the National Assembly and then the Capital Building and so on. Nevertheless, the demolition began on Liberation Day, August 15, 1995, marking the 50th anniversary of the end of Japanese rule. The world would have taken the action as a sort of hysteria and a sign of ultra-nationalism. But to most of the Korean people it was a national sacrifice to the lost 36 years and to all victims of the time. By late 1996, the building was gone, taking with it the earlier intensity of anti-Japanese emotion from the Korean people.

In this event, the National Museum took a direct blow, since the building had been the home of the National Museum from the year 1986. Having to move again less than ten years, this time with no building ready to move in, some young staff expressed concerns over the safety of cultural relics and even staged a demonstration by a covenant of joint signature with the catchphrase, 'Build the museum first, Demolish the building later'. However, the government confirmed the decision to move the Museum into a temporary building within the palace complex and made public its plan for a new National Museum, this time of a grand-scale, to become the largest in Asia, The result is the present building for the National Museum which was opened in late 2005, after nearly 10 years of preparation.

With the new Museum Korea seems to have entered a new phase of cultural nationalism, more relaxed, rid of the postcolonial and post-War resentments and self-pity. One significant step was to stop being a museum indifferent to other Asian cultures. The government accepted a proposal by the program committee to add an exhibition hall devoted to Asian art. But this move was somewhat counteracted by the addition of the Hall of History, pushed by the historians, who were armed with strong nationalism. The lack of a historical collection was one reason given by the opponents who insisted building a collection first, and then an independent history museum. The outcome was otherwise, as seen in the slide on the screen. The need to fill the History Hall ensured inter-departmental tensions over the limited pool of relics. As a consequence, the Hall of History had to be left pretty much devoid of the cultural narration of history since the other two departments of Fine Arts and of Archaeology were reluctant to share the cultural relics which had been under their care. In the midst of all this, the Hall of Asian Art was left uncared for with no department responsible for its upkeep and programmes.

Less than a year had passed when I was appointed as Director in August 2006. The museum was not quite settled in terms of organization and programmes. Those yellow-marked on the chart are the departments I managed to install or upgrade while in office. The programme of exhibitions, education, and acquisition were also found to be in need of more historical objectivity and inclusivity if the Museum wished to be a truly representative of Asian and Korean culture. This direction, when successfully implanted, would have influenced the 11 regional branches under its directorship.

With the new department of specialist curators, the Hall of Asian Art was finally taking a better shape with a separate gallery for the South and Southeast Asia, the Central Asia, Himalayan region, China and North-eastern Asian, Japan and the Chinese relics excavated from Lolang and the peninsula's seabeds [of course there have been some new arrangements in the last two years and this chart may not be the same now]. Two-thirds of the acquisition fund were spent on the purchase of non-Korean objects covering China, Japan, and India. I used to say to the staff who were worried over such unprecedented move; 'We’d better do it, since this will probably happen only while I am in office'. It turned out that my staff and I were both right. They were right to worry since I had to stand in front of a hearing committee at the National Assembly who furiously criticized the acquisition of non-Korean objects, labeling the action anti-nationalistic. I was also right that there has not been much non-Korean acquisition since I left the Museum. Since the Museum is 100 percent funded by the government, it is often censored on its spending and on the number of visitors. But there have been some signs that the government may take a similar action as in Japan sooner or later to make the Museum less dependent on the government for its need of approximately 100 million dollar annual funding for the central museum in Seoul and its 11 regional branches.

At any rate, acquisition alone was not enough to fill the galleries and energize the Asian programme; it needed loans and exchanges of exhibitions from outside of Korea. This awareness helped initiate the organization of the Asian National Museums Association. It was delightful to receive the welcoming response from the directors of national museums in China and Japan. The photo shows the first meeting of three directors to plan the organization. The second year meeting was held at the Tokyo National Museum. Consequently, the Chinese Art Gallery received a long-term loan from the National Museum of China; Loans from the Vietnam Ethnology Museum Hanoi made possible a special exhibition of Vietnam; there were also long-term loans from the National Museum of Indonesia for the South and Southeast Art Gallery. The Japanese Art Gallery received long term loans from the Tokyo National Museum to make up for the shortage of objects and to organize special thematic exhibitions. Delightful as all these were, the exchanges were still in one-way direction. It was hoped it would not remain so when the Special Gallery for Asia is in operation at the National Museum of China, and when the Toyokan of the Tokyo National Museum is finally renovated.


As a way to conclude my talk, let me read you part of the welcoming remark I gave at the inauguration of the Asian National Museums Association on the morning of October 25, 2007. It reads:

'I would like to welcome all directors and representatives from the national museums of Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, Mongolia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Over the past decades national museums in Asia have exercised cultural leadership in preservation and promotion of one's own cultural heritage, but admittedly with little interest in the culture of neighboring Asian countries. We have been all immersed in one's own cultural heritage for many, many reasons - mainly as a defensive mechanism as a post-colonial reaction or in face of the Westernization of culture, or as both. The National Museum of Korea was not an exception in this regard.

Today we are gathered here in Korea to inaugurate the Asian National Museums Association, with a shared belief that now is the time Asian countries begin to think beyond one's own cultural nationalism to understand and appreciate the rich cultural diversity of Asia and its contribution in the making of the Asian civilization'.

Well three years have passed since the welcoming remark, and it is amazing that I am here to talk about the same issue as passionately as ever. I must regret that, given the time constraint, I could not touch on the National Museum of Taiwan and the National Museum of North Korea, as well as many other related issues. I shall end my talk here and I thank you all so much for being with me tonight. Thank you!

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