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.
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.
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.
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.