The (not so yummy) mummies. The (allegedly stolen) Elgin Marbles. The (not a language course) Rosetta Stone. We all know what’s in the British Museum, right?
Well at any rate we all probably know what the highlights are, given that the museum has held its place as the most popular cultural attraction in the UK for the past 8 years, with around 6.7 million visitors passing through its doors annually.
But when we spoke to Eleanor Hyun, Curator for the Korean Collection, she conceded that “when you talk to British people for the most part, they say ‘yeah, I went to the British Museum when I was 7 with my school and I haven’t been back’ so it feels like there’s a part of the population who thinks nothing about it changes very much.”
But things do change in the museum’s permanent collection – many objects can’t be left permanently on display and have to be rotated for the purposes of conservation. Hyun admits “I love that my gallery changes every 6 months or so because you can’t have paintings or works on paper, textiles or silk, out for that long. It animates the space again, which is counter to what a few people think about the British Museum as being more static.”
In the late 90s, the British Library moved part of its collection from the museum to its current home on Euston Road, resulting in some freed-up space. Part of this was set aside to form the Korea Gallery, which opened in 2000. Hyun shared with us why she loves three particular pieces from the Korean collection, and why we should make an effort to see them the next time we’re in Bloomsbury, instead of heading straight for the mummies.
Moon Jar (Joseon period, 1650-1750, glazed porcelain)
“The moon jar is the obviously one of the museum’s star pieces because it is very representative of Korean 17th Century porcelain from the last dynastic period. I like it because it shows how objects have their own lives – in particular its life in the 20th Century. It was bought by [father of British studio pottery] Bernard Leach, who visited Korea in 1930. He really loved it and during World War II, he asked potter Lucie Rie to move it to her studio for safekeeping. The anecdote goes that when he went to pick it up from her studio in 1946, he thought it looked so amazing there that he said she should just keep it, which she did until her death in 1995. The museum then purchased it in 1999.
“This style of jar is always slightly different because of the way it’s made; because it is produced in two halves and you have to bring them together to make it into a whole, so the middle it is often flattened out. It’s called the Moon Jar but that is its 20th century name. Nobody really knows exactly who started it, but there was a Korean artist who was known to have use that phrase. In the historical records it’s just called a big jar!”
“Sarangbang” – A Gentleman’s Room (Recreated from the Joseon period 1392-1910)
“This is one of the few places you can see a traditional Korean architectural space in the UK. The scholar’s, or gentleman’s, room would have been somewhere a man would have studied, done calligraphy, have slept or had friends over for tea or drinks. It was designed by Korean architect Shin Young-hoon in the style of an upper class house of the mid-1800s, and he installed it with 12 Korean craftsmen who brought the materials over from Korea.
“You see right away that everything is really close to the floor and that there are no high tables or chairs. Back then it was because the floor was heated but still to this day a lot of people sit on the floor in Korea and Japan. You had a stone floor with oil paper on top, so in the winter when you heated the stones below it, the floor would be warm. But in the summer, you obviously wouldn’t heat the stones so it would be nice and cool.
“If you were able to go into the space, you would see that the ceiling feels low, and because the furniture is low too, you automatically go lower to the ground. So the space in itself, like any kind of architectural space, informs you of how the furniture is going to be in terms of scale. I am trying to create a programme so a controlled number of visitors can walk inside as I really want people to experience the space – stay tuned!”
Nam June Paik (1932-2006) – Evolution, Revolution, Resolution, 1989. Colour lithographs on paper
“I didn’t even know these were here until I came to work here! It’s a set of 8 prints from 1989, made to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. The television robots represent 8 of the revolution’s leading figures. We currently have 3 on show (Jacques-Louis David, Denis Diderot and Olympe de Gouges), and rotate them.
“I like that people are surprised that we have them. Also if you really look at each of them, you can see that he’s given each of them their own programming. When you read them, if you know all the languages, they’re hilarious, and you realise that he must have been a funny playful dude. But at the same time, it feels like he is thinking not only about the French Revolution, but as an art practice having social consciousness and the ability to have a political voice.
“The other thing that I like about them is that because they are works on paper, they can’t be out all the time. I feel that when they are out it’s kind of a precious thing because they’ll go back into storage and it might be another couple of years before they come back out. Again it shows how art itself is not always at your beck and call and sometimes you have to make an effort to see certain things.”