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[INTERVIEW] Cultural asset restorer who brought 'hanji' into heart of Louvre

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One of the prints from the famed Edmond de Rothschild Collection that was donated to the Louvre Museum in France has been restored with traditional Korean
One of the prints from the famed Edmond de Rothschild Collection that was donated to the Louvre Museum in France has been restored with traditional Korean "hanji" paper in 2018. Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association

Kim Min-jung on mission to promote traditional Korean paper's merits for cultural asset restoration

By Park Han-sol

The ninth-century Quran manuscript and 18th-century pastel portraits of the Bourbon family, Europe's powerful dynasty that ruled France, Spain, parts of Italy and Luxembourg ― what do these seemingly disparate cultural artifacts have in common?

They are invaluable relics from the collection of France's Louvre Museum, which were all restored through traditional Korean paper called "hanji."

It is no exaggeration to say that in the field of conservation and restoration, in regard to
cultural property ― including paintings, artifacts and antique documents ― at prominent museums across the world, Japanese paper known as "washi" has dominated the market for decades as the "best" material, due to its apparent strength and durability.

Because cultural property restoration is a high-stakes field, it becomes incredibly difficult for conservators to take risks to try out new materials for their projects when there already is an established, high-quality substance in the market.

Against such a backdrop, Paris-based cultural asset restorer Kim Min-jung is a man who made hanji the rising star of conservation projects at the Louvre.

Cultural asset conservator and restorer Kim Min-jung / Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association
Cultural asset conservator and restorer Kim Min-jung / Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association
"Paper is such an important material when it comes to the restoration of cultural property," the 35-year-old told The Korea Times in a recent Zoom interview.

In the case of paintings and other paper-based artifacts, paper can be used to either directly repair the damaged areas of tears and thinning or remount the work and give it additional overall support.

Paper also plays a role in breathing new life into damaged wooden furniture, frames and sculptures, as it can be mashed and ground to fill in the cracks and chips. For marble sculptures and potteries, paper sheets become the go-to tools to remove dirt and stains on their surfaces without inflicting damage.

Multiple factors make hanji an ideal material for such works, according to Kim.

Korea's centuries-old "webal" sheet formation technique involves aligning fibers harvested from the inner bark of native mulberry trees in both vertical and horizontal directions ― unlike Japanese paper whose fibers are only aligned in a single direction.

This means that hanji's fibers are more closely woven and entangled, making it more resistant and sturdy, "almost like silk," he said.

The webal method also allows hanji to have high dimensional stability ― the ability of paper to maintain its original dimensions when subjected to varying degrees of moisture. In other words, the rate of expansion or contraction of the traditional Korean paper remains low when there is a change in its moisture content.

Above all, the paper is known for its durability due to its extremely low impurities. It uses mulberry bark without any other additives, which is boiled with lye solely made from natural plant ashes to remove any non-cellulosic elements.

"Any addition of chemical agents, which is the case for nearly all industrial paper, affects its quality, as it leads to the material's degradation and discoloration," he explained.

Despite its high quality, however, hanji has remained virtually unknown among the cultural property conservators in the Western Hemisphere.

Kim recalled one day of class at the Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne University, where he was pursuing a master's degree in the conservation and restoration of cultural property with a focus on paper-based artifacts.

"I had some spare sheets of hanji at my home and decided to take them to school that day. My classmates were fascinated with the paper, asking me where I got the Japanese washi. I was surprised to hear that until I heard my professors ask the same thing," he recounted.

"That was when this question came to my mind: Why are all sheets of paper produced from mulberry trees ubiquitously called 'washi' in the West?"

And so began his goal to introduce hanji to cultural property restorers ― both aspiring and established ― in Europe. It seemed to him that the first symbolic step that should be taken to imprint hanji's existence on their memory was to head to one of the world's most influential museums in the world: the Louvre.

In 2014, after a fierce competition, he became the first Korean ever to intern and later take part in restoration projects at the Paris museum.

Kim Min-jung works with hanji at the Louvre's restoration center for cultural artifacts in 2014. Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association
Kim Min-jung works with hanji at the Louvre's restoration center for cultural artifacts in 2014. Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association

How hanji entered Louvre's restoration center

Kim said that when he first set out on his mission to promote hanji's merits, his nationality proved to be one of the biggest obstacles. A number of his colleagues and peers would take his words with a grain of salt, assuming that his being Korean led automatically to his bias toward hanji.

"Some would even comment that this was a form of ultranationalism," he said. "But I thought to myself that if we Koreans didn't promote the quality of our own traditional materials, then none of the others would ― or could."

He added that he was determined to take a data-driven and scientific approach to demonstrate the Korean paper's merits convincingly.

One staff member at the Louvre who became the biggest supporter throughout his journey is Ariane de La Chapelle, who is responsible for applied research and conservation of graphic arts at the museum.

"She would emphasize that the most important quality in a material used for restoration is durability. After taking that word to heart, I would constantly approach her to gain insights and have relevant discussions, and gradually began to introduce her to the world of hanji," he said.

Eventually, his efforts paid off and succeeded in getting the attention of de La Chapelle and the Louvre's conservation team. His mission was able further to pick up speed as he completed his master's thesis, "Specificite du Papier Coreen (The Specificity of Korean Paper)," where he launched a comparative, data-driven study of Japanese and Korean mulberry paper in the French market.

Former first lady Kim Jung-sook, second from left, and her French counterpart, Brigitte Macron, third from left, take a look at King Maximilian II's antique writing desk from 19th-century Bavaria that was restored with hanji at the Louvre in this Oct. 15, 2018 photo. Yonhap
Former first lady Kim Jung-sook, second from left, and her French counterpart, Brigitte Macron, third from left, take a look at King Maximilian II's antique writing desk from 19th-century Bavaria that was restored with hanji at the Louvre in this Oct. 15, 2018 photo. Yonhap

The first case for the Louvre to utilize hanji to restore a relic from its collection took place in 2017, specifically for a damaged handle ornament of an antique writing desk from 19th-century Bavaria that belonged to King Maximilian II. Kim took part in the restoration process by screening and selecting suitable candidates among all the available kinds of Korean paper.

An international conference hosted by the museum in the same year on the occasion of its successful restoration of the artifact launched hanji to newfound stardom among representatives of other art institutions as well as scholars.

"It was part of the museum's project to analyze the sustainability of traditional handmade paper made of plant fibers throughout the world. But because of its heavy focus on hanji and the corresponding interest from the participants, the event almost became known as the 'hanji conference,'" Kim said.

Since then, the Louvre Museum began purchasing traditional hanji produced from Mungyeong and Andong in North Gyeongsang Province, as well as Goesan in North Chungcheong Province, to restore a number of its artifacts.

Kim became part of the museum's many projects, including the restoration of a 9th-century Quran manuscript parchment, prints from the famed Edmond de Rothschild Collection and the Joseon-era folding screen that was taken to France during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial period of Korea, with hanji.

In 2019, Kim Min-jung became one of the founding members of the nonprofit organization, Mirae Hanji Association, which aims to play a more systematic role in promoting hanji's heritage and connecting Korean artisans with representatives from major European museums. The association organized a field trip for French museum officials to a traditional hanji workshop in Mungyeong in 2019. Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association
In 2019, Kim Min-jung became one of the founding members of the nonprofit organization, Mirae Hanji Association, which aims to play a more systematic role in promoting hanji's heritage and connecting Korean artisans with representatives from major European museums. The association organized a field trip for French museum officials to a traditional hanji workshop in Mungyeong in 2019. Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association

Fateful encounter with legendary historian

Quite surprisingly, however, Kim made it clear that his passion for hanji and cultural restoration was a late-blooming one. In fact, his dream to become an aerospace engineer since his arrival in Paris at the age of 14 made it nearly impossible for him to cross paths with the traditional Korean paper. But his fateful encounter with legendary Korean-French historian Park Byeong-seon (1923-2011) in 2008 marked a watershed in his life.

Late scholar Park dedicated her life to bringing back the "Oegyujanggak Uigwe" to Korea ― a collection of royal records and calligraphic manuscripts from the Joseon Kingdom that were looted by the French military during an incursion into Korea in 1866 and were thought to be lost afterward. She first verified its location in 1975, when it was gathering dust in a corner of an offsite storage facility of the National Library of France.

Park is also nicknamed "the mother of 'Jikji Simche Yojeol,'" better known as "Jikji." In 1972, she was responsible for unveiling the existence of the Goryeo-era Buddhist scripture as the world's oldest surviving book printed with movable metal types that far predates the Gutenberg Bible in Europe.

"Up until then, I was a freshman who spent his whole student life studying engineering, someone who was only used to dealing with numbers and formulas," he recalled.

"But after meeting Park, I was soon captivated by her life. How could one individual devote her entire life to protecting cultural artifacts to such an extent? It was absolutely beautiful."

For nearly four years, Kim worked under Park, translating old manuscripts and correspondence in French and Korean, mainly those related to "Oegyujanggak Uigwe." Their efforts finally bore fruit in 2011 when 297 volumes of the archive returned to Korean soil ― 145 years after their forced removal.

The whole experience prompted Kim to explore a path that marries his former and newfound academic interests.

"Conservation and restoration of cultural heritage is a field that belongs to archaeology and art history, but at the same time, has its basis in science, especially in chemistry, physics, microbiology and optics," he said.

Installation view of the exhibition,
Installation view of the exhibition, "Histoire de la Maison Bourbon (History of the Bourbon Family)," held at the Louvre last year / Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association

Louvre's showcase of hanji

A special exhibition entitled, "Histoire de la Maison Bourbon (History of the Bourbon Family)," held last year at the Louvre, was one of the most recent significant showcases of hanji's newfound values in cultural asset restoration.

The show featured a set of 18th-century pastel portraits of the members of the House of Bourbon, one of the most prominent ruling houses in Europe of French origin, drawn by renowned painters Jean-Honore Fragonard and Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier. The traditional Korean paper produced from Mungyeong was used to mount a total of 18 pieces on display.

"It was the result of the Louvre's decision that hanji has proven to be more suitable for this particular conservation process than the existing Japanese paper. The case is especially meaningful as it represents the museum's official stance and choice to use the Korean paper to mount the whole series from its collection," Kim said.

And this year, hanji has become the centerpiece yet again, this time at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where an ongoing exhibition, "Stories of Paper," is running until July 24.

Among all paper-based cultural artifacts and heritage across the world on view, one of the highlights of the show is a special section dedicated to Korea's paper tradition ― curated by Kim himself.

A turtle-shaped flask, vest, shoes and hat from the Joseon Kingdom that were all made by cording and weaving hanji into thin strings through a technique called
A turtle-shaped flask, vest, shoes and hat from the Joseon Kingdom that were all made by cording and weaving hanji into thin strings through a technique called "jiseung" / Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association

Traditionally, paper's presence permeated every corner of people's lives in Korea. When a child was born, a straw rope ("geumjul") adorned with the likes of hanji, charcoal and pine twigs used to be hung across the house's gate to ward off evil spirits. Traditional Korean houses, or "hanok," were covered with paper from floor to walls and windows. Even shrouds that wrapped the deceased for burial were made of numerous sheets of paper.

The section visualizes the paper-centric lives of Koreans, featuring a full-scale model of a hanok interior shipped from Jeonju in North Jeolla Province, a men's outer garment called "dopo," and a whole set of clothing ― a vest, shoes and hat ― made by cording and weaving hanji into thin rope through a technique called "jiseung."

"Hanji section has been given a lot of weight in this exhibition," the conservator noted. "What I aimed to show was that the lives of Koreans were accompanied by paper from birth to death. Korea is a country of paper, after all."

Ariane de La Chapelle, left, who is responsible for the applied research and conservation of graphic arts at the Louvre Museum, prepares to mount 18th-century portraits of the members of the House of Bourbon with hanji. Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association
Ariane de La Chapelle, left, who is responsible for the applied research and conservation of graphic arts at the Louvre Museum, prepares to mount 18th-century portraits of the members of the House of Bourbon with hanji. Courtesy of Mirae Hanji Association

Hanji's future in cultural asset restoration

While hanji has made notable strides in recent years in the field of cultural conservation and restoration, it still has a long way to go.

In order for the paper to have a sustainable impact in museums, one of the most pressing issues that must be addressed, Kim argues, is its inevitably low supply.

Currently, only around 20 workshops in Korea continue to produce high-quality webal hanji through centuries-old papermaking techniques, according to the conservator. The amount is nowhere near enough to be used by all the museums in Europe, let alone across the world.

Another equally problematic matter for him lies in the lack of proper storage space for a large amount of hanji in Paris.

"In museums, there are often times when certain paper suddenly is needed for an unforeseen restoration process. If hanji is deemed suitable for the project and is available on the spot, the process can begin right away. But that's not the case at this moment," he said.

It can take a week or even up to a month for hanji to be shipped all the way from Korea. Due to such shortage and delays, in 2020, the Louvre missed a chance to restore the work of one of the most acclaimed Italian Renaissance masters, Raphael, with hanji.

"The piece was eventually treated with Japanese washi. As a conservator, I believed hanji was the most fitting material for the job, and it made my heart ache to see that it couldn't be done," said Kim.

Currently, Kim works as a visiting researcher at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, while continuing to collaborate with the Louvre on projects involving the Korean paper.

What is his greatest ambition, you ask?

"I hope to restore celebrated masterpieces across the globe with our hanji ― even Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa ― one day."


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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