Viewing Korean ethnographic artifacts, including women's costumes at a Korean collection in the National Museum of Ethnology during my last visit to Leiden, the Netherlands, my mind was full of emotion in remembering our ancestors' way of life. The museum possesses approximately 1,000 Korean artifacts that were mostly collected by Dutch people who resided in Deshima, a Dutch trading post from 1641 to 1854 in Nagasaki, Japan.
A significant number of artifacts are stored outside of Korea, scattered across many countries, mainly in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. These Korean artifacts were either destroyed or taken out of the country during foreign invasions, such as the Mongolian invasion of Korea (1231-73), the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592-98), Byeongin-yangyo (French expedition to Korea in 1866) and the Japanese colonial period (1910-45), as well as the Korean War (1950-53).
An exhibition, titled "Restoring the Legacy of Korean Paintings," is being held at the National Palace Museum of Korea, hosted by the museum and the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, from Sept. 11 to Oct. 13.
The displays are comprised of 13 prestigious Korean artifacts, consisting of unique paintings and distinctive embroidered screens from the Joseon Kingdom (1392―1910) period. These came from the collections of six museums in four countries. The institutions include: the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Sweden, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the U.S., the Museum at the Rothenbaum and the Mission Museum of St. Ottilien Archabbey in Germany, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in Great Britain.
Recently, some of the artifacts at these museums were returned to Korea for repair and conservation as they have suffered considerable damage. Fortunately, Korean experts were able to repair them properly, and the National Palace Museum is displaying them before returning them to their homes abroad. Their display now in Korea inspired me as if it were the reunion of a separated family.
For me, the most impressive items are "Leopard and Magpie" and "Orchids" from the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Sweden. "Leopard and Magpie" is a traditional folk painting portraying a pine tree, a leopard and a magpie. It was treated well and looks as if it were in the original condition. The distinctive natural beauty of the pine tree, leopard and magpie act as symbols and metaphors in the painting.
"Orchids" is a work by Yi Ha-eung, a reformist and the father of King Gojong of Joseon, painted on black silk, utilizing gold pigment. It was originally collected by Dr. Arne Piltz, who served at the Swedish Red Cross Hospital in Busan during the Korean War. This hospital treated numerous soldiers and civilians wounded at the front.
After the Korean War, with an enthusiastic love for Korea, Piltz served at the National Medical Center in Korea, which had been established by three Scandinavian countries in 1958. Returning to Sweden, he established an association there to enhance friendship between the two countries. He donated the painting to the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Sweden, established in 1926 to house the collections of former Swedish King Gustaf VI Adolf.
Korean cultural artifacts stored in museums overseas serve to promote cultural identity worldwide, although some of them have been seriously damaged over the decades.
I appeal to the government to make its utmost efforts to research and preserve precious cultural assets held overseas, in order to shed light on Korea's past legacy.
Choe Chong-dae is a guest columnist of The Korea Times. He is president of Dae-kwang International Co., and director of the Korean-Swedish Association. He can be reached at email@example.com.