Senior Research Fellow and former Deputy Director at the Victoria and Albert Museum Beth McKillop was the UK’s representative at Korea’s annual Culture Communication Forum hosted by the Corea Image Communication Institute.
Since 1990 when I first visited Korea to collect ceramics, outfits and furniture for a planned Victoria and Albert Museum Korea gallery, I’ve been to Korea a dozen times. The visit I’ve just returned from was unique for me, because it wasn’t about a specific UK-Korean cultural project. My host, the Culture Communication Forum, CCF, was designed as a bridge between Korea and the world, so I found myself with a diverse international group including performers, a visual artist, a publisher, and even cultural entrepreneurs from France, Italy and Singapore. Our only homework was to prepare some thoughts on the nature of cultural communication. Professor Choi Jung-wha, the dynamic president of the Corea Image Communication Institute, has led CCF each year since the Seoul G20 of 2010. The meetings have evolved to include participants from non G20 countries. This year’s group was eclectic, lively and engaged. In three packed days, we saw, heard and took part in more activities than seems possible.
In Itaewon I saw an extraordinary Vinyl Library run by Hyundai Card – a members’ club that offers exclusive privileges to its clientele. In addition to the Vinyl Library there’s a travel library – buildings with a pared-back aesthetic, emblems of the new, stylish city Seoul has become. Hyundai Card runs a production unit and design studio which we were also lucky to visit, thanks to their CEO Chung Tae-young.
The enthusiasm and ambition of Korean cultural professionals across all sectors of the arts and commerce was apparent to us all in the CCF group, from old hands like me through to first time visitors. Not far from the National Museum of Korea, now into its second decade in Yongsan, is the recently opened Hangeul Museum, a spacious, family-friendly centre with first class galleries and teaching facilities. Languages and writing systems are not accessible subjects for museum displays, particularly in a situation where the majority of visitors are native speakers with a deep, instinctive knowledge of the subject, but a significant minority of the audience is totally ignorant of the subject, keen to learn, but short of time. The curators and designers of the Hangeul Museum have done an excellent job. They have combined traditional case displays with treasures of Hangeul such as ‘Hunmin Chongum, the Correct Sounds to Educate the People’ with interactive and participative areas encouraging individual and group learning. Quite a few of the CCF delegates were dancers and singers, so it was fun and fairly rowdy to learn a mask dance, Talchum, in one of the Museum’s teaching rooms. Drummers and dancers taught the guests the repetitive rhythms of the dance and encouraged everyone to join in without restraint. We learned that Hangeul has a direct connection with Korean folk dance. Like the villagers all around the country who danced in their local styles, the readers and writers of Hangeul were common people who benefitted from the script’s clear principles of recording sounds. Hangeul was an aid to literacy for common people, one which brought enlightenment and knowledge to a greater proportion of Koreans than could otherwise have been possible.
Arumjigi Culture Keepers, is known to Londoners from the beautiful show of costume they presented at the Korean Cutural Centre a few years back. Arumjigi works to ‘imprint cultural heritage on the psyche of modern Korean society’. At their headquarters in northern Seoul, an elegant building with traditional constructions inserted into a modern town house, we found a surprising, functional space at once welcoming and calming. Arumjigi is involved in signage and general presentation of cultural heritage sites, including the royal palaces. The CCF delegates visited Changdeokgung, where the carefully placed multi-lingual orientation aids designed by Arumjigi improve the visitor’s experience without distracting attention from the star of the show – the buildings and gardens themselves. Another Arumjigi programme is research and teaching about Korean cuisine, and the group tried a delicious lunchbox with dishes selected by Madame Hong, the visionary leader of the Foundation. As a membership organisation, Arumjigi is a far-reaching initiative that encourages participation and commitment by supporters who are interested in heritage, architecture, food, dress and culture.
Other memorable gastronomic experiences punctuated our days of visits, and emphasized the integrated, holistic approach to Korean identity that is taking shape in modern Seoul. We ate refined ‘Neo Korean Cuisine’ at Congdu, near the Deoksu Palace, and enjoyed fresh and fermented ingredients at the quietly elegant BiCeNa, where constant trials and experiments with traditional ingredients and simple but refined presentation create fine dining with an authentically Korean feel.
CCF 2016 had a beautiful logo designed by the calligrapher Kang Byung-in. Its five dancing figures recall the character ‘woot’ with a human head and two legs in motion, intended to reinforce the forum’s message of friendly exchange and communication. The final day was devoted to discussion, interviews and a gala dinner, with enthusiastic singing by the guests rounding off the evening. UK Ambassador Charles Hay was among the speakers, and impressed the guests with his Korean language skills, while Dr Kim Kabsoo, recently returned to Seoul and Director of the Korean Culture and Information Service, also spoke in support of the forum. As well as the memorable Korean experiences – too many to list here – I had a rare opportunity to see how different national styles of culture interact with Korea. Our French delegates were the owners of a chateau in the Loire, with a keen interest in building and site presentation and the commercial potential of cultural heritage. Professional dancers from Malaysia and Turkey were intrigued by the different styles of dance and music we encountered, while our writers and publishers, from Spain, India and Russia, were intellectually intrigued, perplexed even, by the relentless succession of images of old and new, quiet and boisterous, sumptuous and austere, that we encountered in two days of visits. The one common response was determination to return, for professional or personal reasons.
The 2016 Culture Communication Forum was held in Seoul, 4-6 September.