British Museum blog

Facelift: the new Korea Foundation Gallery

Sascha Priewe, curator, and Ellie Miles, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

The Museum is re-opening its refreshed Korea Foundation Gallery (Room 67) thanks to a generous grant from the National Museum of Korea. The project gave us the chance to re-think how we talk about and display things from the Korean peninsula. We took into account the collection’s profile, and how our visitors actually use our permanent gallery spaces. Most visitors make their own paths around the gallery, so we took down walls and moved cases to open up the space for them to browse and make different connections between objects. Bringing in colourful case designs and a new lighting design, we hope that the new gallery will give the objects a stronger visual impact, and encourage closer looking than before.

Samramansang Moon Jar #1 by Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960)

Samramansang Moon Jar #1 by Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960), USA, 2010–13, mixed media on wood (British Museum 2014,3046.1)

The collection tells an on-going story of Korean visual and material culture that continues to today. To start this new look at the Korean peninsula’s enduring history, we chose contemporary art with a historical focus. Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960) is an artist whose paintings of moon jars from the Joseon period (1392–1910) are particularly well known. His spectacular Samramansang Moon Jar #1 will welcome visitors into the gallery.

One of the parts of the new gallery that we are most excited about is the cases that we have reserved for changing displays. These will allow the gallery to be responsive to the events programme, new acquisitions and visitor interest. When the gallery opens on 16 December the first of these cases will show the work of Nam June Paik (1932–2006),the Korean pioneer of video art. The display of his works is in step with other interest in him, such as Tate Modern’s current exhibition. The other changing cases will allow us to make links with other collections within the Museum, too, and with the Museum’s exhibition programme.

Korean and Chinese objects displayed in Eumorfopoulos’ home, 7 Chelsea Embankment, London, 1934

Korean and Chinese objects displayed in Eumorfopoulos’ home, originally published in George Eumorfopoulos, G.E. 7, Chelsea Embankment, December 1934 (1934).

As we’ve been thinking about the re-display, the first ‘mini-exhibition’ will look at the history of the Korean collection at the British Museum, and how the earliest Western collectors of Korean art might have seen Korea. The beginnings of the Korean collections and the collecting of Korean objects began in the 19th century through the likes of the diplomat Thomas Watters (1840-1901), William Gowland (18427–1922), who worked for the Japanese mint, and George Eumorfopoulos (1863–1939), an ‘Oriental’ art collector in London, each representing different types of collectors. Between the three of them they amassed important collections but each with a very different texture.

East Gate – Seoul by Elizabeth Keith (1887–1956), Britain, about 1924, colour woodcut, donated by the Contemporary Art Society, P&D 1928,0310.40

East Gate – Seoul, colour woodcut by Elizabeth Keith (1887–1956), Britain, c. 1924, (British Museum PD 1928,0310.40)

Another lens through which Korea was seen was through photography and paintings. The display will show books featuring images of Korea published by the collectors’ contemporaries. Depictions of trades, pastimes, boats, architecture, costumes and natural history and so forth provided a lens through which Asia was perceived. And we will also show prints by Europeans and Americans that they made based on their impressions of Korea.

The gallery refreshment has given us the chance to look into the collection from different angles, to explore its strengths and its weaknesses. We have made some new discoveries and reconnected with objects that have been ‘old friends’. But our main task has been to improve the gallery to serve the visitors much more consciously by telling exciting stories and making connections with a part of the world, its past and present, that is still largely unknown.

The Korea Foundation Gallery</a re-opens on 17 December 2014, admission free.
View on the floorplan

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Korean moon jar

Korean moon jarSascha Priewe, British Museum

Conventionally known as ‘moon jars’, dalhangri in Korean, because of their suggestive shape and milky-white glaze, these vessels are considered a high point of Korean ceramic production during the Choson period (1392-1910).

Korean moon jar

Korean moon jar

This jar in the British Museum is one of only 20 such vessels remaining in the world. It stands 47 cm high and was produced in around 1650-1750. It was made by joining the separately thrown top and bottom sections together, thereby creating a visible joint at the centre. Although there is no firm evidence about the use of moon jars, it has been proposed that food or drink may have been stored in them or that they held flowers.

Moon jars have recently become popular in Korea and abroad. These vessels have inspired a broad movement in contemporary Korean art. Some artists, such as the famous ceramist Park Young-sook (b. 1947), whose modern moon jar is also represented in the British Museum’s collection, have recaptured their aesthetic and technical accomplishment; while others feature moon jars as a motif in paintings, photography and art installations. In this way, moon jars have become to be an icon of Korean art.

During the Choson period, Confucianism became the dominant ideology of the upper class. A moral philosophy, Confucianism governed the conduct of social relationships, and it still remains important today. It also had an impact on Choson-period aesthetics by encouraging a preference for restraint in decoration and likely contributing to the popularisation of plain white ceramics. The moon jar with its imbalance and minor imperfections in the white glaze epitomises this approach towards objects.

The British Museum’s Choson moon jar has a special connection to the United Kingdom. It was acquired by the British potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979) during a trip to Korea in 1935. Leach, who is often regarded as the ‘father of British studio pottery’, took much inspiration from certain East Asian ceramic traditions and incorporated aesthetic sensibilities, such as “nobility, austerity, strength, and warmth” that he identified, into his works. Decidedly anti-industrial, British studio potters strove to re-discover traditional artisan pottery – the ‘peasant pottery’- that Bernard Leach found resonated with many of the East Asian pieces he venerated. It is tempting to think that the British Museum’s moon jar from Korea helped to define the aesthetics of British studio potters.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 20 December 2012.

The Korean moon jar is on display in Room 67: Korea

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