A visit to the New York Korean Cultural Centre

The New York Korean Cultural Centre fits well into the chaotic streets of mid-town Manhattan. They’re both full of good things, a bit bewildering to the outsider, in need of a facelift, and short of space.

KCC New York

I paid a visit at lunchtime yesterday, walking the 10 blocks from my boss’s office to the Centre at 460 Park Avenue, just north of 57th Street, braving the depressing drizzle and poorly disciplined traffic.

Past a sign which asks you to show your security pass or ring for someone to collect you, you ask the security guard which floor the Cultural Centre is on, and you simply get directed up to the 6th Floor. Turn one way for visas, the other way for the Cultural Centre. A receptionist sits behind a glass screen like the foreign exchange counter at the airport, but she doesn’t seem to mind if you say a brief hello and just wander past into the exhibition space.

There’s some sculpture on show by four Korean-American artists. Steel, wood and stone objects plonked on the floor, mounted on plinths or somehow fixed to the walls. The names of the artists were clearly on show, but any exposition as to what the show was about was hard to come by.

In a display cabinet outside there were certain cultural objects (tea sets, silk ties, modern buncheon ware) which were possibly for sale, but no prices were in evidence. Beyond the display cabinet, the interior of a traditional Korean room is reproduced.

I ask the receptionist if I can have a look round the library, and am ushered through a security door, having signed in.

Imagine your favourite pokey second-hand bookshop in a rural market town. Bookshelves packed closely together creating dark alleyways, piles of books on any available bit of floor-space, recent acquisitions waiting to be filed, books recently brought in but not processed yet. Some labels on the ends of the bookshelves which give some imprecise indication of what you might find if you explore further. Almost hidden behind a wall of books on a table sits the shopkeeper.

You have just imagined the library of the New York Korean Cultural Centre, though there’s the incongruous addition of a life-size dummy wearing a hanbok standing in the corner, behind which is some shelving containing costumes for hire.

On some fairground rides there are height restrictions; there should definitely be a sign on the library door saying that entry is prohibited to anyone over 15 stone. A medium-to-slight body-frame, together with some agility to navigate the various obstacles, is required to get the best experience from the library.

But there is treasure. I only had a very brief browse, but there were subtitled VHS videos of films not available on DVD: for example Jeong Ji-yeong’s White Badge, Park Kwang-su’s Black Republic; impossible-to-find DVDs such as Byun Young-joo’s comfort woman trilogy. DVDs you have a sneaking desire to watch but would never buy (BoA’s music videos). Among the books there were several which are on my mental wishlist and not to my knowledge currently in print: Ahn Junghyo’s Silver Stallion; Choe In-hun’s Grey Man and many others. All available for loan.

It’s a great place to browse. Almost. Because there’s nowhere to sit. Oh well. And I was going to say that it almost makes me want to transfer to head office, but the squalors of the Manhattan streets make London’s West End on a Friday night seem positively appealing.

But in any event there’s no need. Because the London cultural centre will be opening soon. If it has the same resources to invest in books and DVDs that the New York centre clearly has, this is a great opportunity. Starting something from scratch you can learn from the experiences of your colleagues elsewhere.

I’ll probably be paying the NY cultural centre another visit this evening. Somehow they’re going to screen a film in the middle of the exhibition space. Should be interesting.

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