2010 Travel Diary #17: The Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation

Tuesday 4 May 2010. As part of my trip to Korea, I wanted to understand more about the way in which Korea goes about preserving its ancient culture and presents it for modern audiences. Is it possible to market traditional culture to foreigners as a theme for tourism? How is it possible to market traditional culture to the domestic consumer? How is the choice made to preserve one particular element of culture and consign another to its fate? Is it right to preserve culture in aspic, or should traditional culture be allowed – or forced – to adapt in order to remain relevant to a modern audience? In the time available I was not going to get to the bottom of these questions, and to be honest I didn’t really know how to tackle them. I had two days for interviews as part of my journey, and one hour was allocated to the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation. It was a start.

Korea has a complex and sophisticated system of cataloguing and preserving its intangible cultural heritage. Firstly, there are two hierarchies of heritage: the national system and the provincial system – and the day before in Bucheon we had seen evidence of the way Gyeonggi-do supports some of its important provincial craftsmen. Obviously, the national system is regarded as the more important, but that is not to downplay the significance of local heritage.

Secondly, at national level there is the distinction between the body which registers the heritage, and the one that tries to keep it alive. The former is the Cultural Heritage Administration, based in Daejeon. Their job is partly academic, and maybe a little bit political: to make policy decisions as to which items of heritage get selected for preservation; where there are competing versions of the same tradition, which version gets selected; who should be appointed as holder of that property or tradition; and which properties should be put forward for listing by UNESCO. Meanwhile, the semi-autonomous Cultural Heritage Foundation based in Gangnam, Seoul, is tasked with more practical matters: find outlets for promoting the items of cultural heritage which have been listed. Reflecting this practical remit, the Foundation reports monthly audience numbers and sales figures to the Ministry of Culture.

Changing the Guard
Changing the Guard at the Deoksu Palace

Many items on the standard tourist trail will be supported by the Foundation. For example, the traditional music performances at Korea House are supported by the Foundation (approximately 80% of the audience at these performances are foreign), and the changing of the guard ceremonies at the royal palaces. The high-quality retail outlets at Incheon Airport selling gorgeous pottery and other crafts are also run by the Foundation1. And one of the main events that they oversee is the annual performance of the great rites at Jongmyo.

The Foundation itself came into existence around 30 years ago. Although Park Chung-hee had established the system of registering Korea’s cultural heritage in the 1960s, the grass-roots minjung movement indicated a more widespread interest in Korea’s traditional culture as a symbol of national identity.

But despite the initial grass-roots support, it’s sometimes difficult to get people, particularly young people, interested in traditional culture. “We’ve had a traumatic modern history, with rapid industrialisation, so young people are sometimes impatient with traditional music,” says An Tae-uk, Culture and Art Director at the Cultural Heritage Foundation. “We try to heal their spirit, with education, and with performances and ceremonies like the Jongmyo rites.”

To be fair, the Jongmyo rites are a solemn ceremony and not intended as mass public entertainment, and so it is hardly surprising that the rituals are not more popular with the locals. Moreover, as I fretted that most of the spectators at the ceremony were Japanese and Chinese, I realised that there was probably a similar balance of tourists and locals in the various public ceremonies in London. And if I was going to criticise Koreans for not attending their own most solemn ceremonies, I would have to criticise myself for never having shown much interest in royal weddings and funerals in the UK. You never appreciate the things on your doorstep.

Incheon outlet
One of the Culture Centre and high class gift shops at Incheon

The Jongmyo rites do present a tourist opportunity, and while many of the visitors to the shrine were casual sightseers, the Korean Tourism Organisation had organised a total of some 500 tourists to come to Korea for a cultural tour of which the high-spot was the Jongmyo Daeje. The day before the rites, they had presented lectures on the meaning of the ceremonies. After the rites, the tourists were heading off down to Kyongju. And why should heritage not be a key tourism selling point? After all, Shakespeare and the Monarchy seem to be a key draw which brings foreign tourists to England.

But heritage should also be for domestic consumption, and one of the changes to the education system since the Cultural Heritage Foundation came into existence is that traditional music is now a compulsory subject in elementary schools. Confirming this well-developed infrastructure for traditional music, Hwang Byung-gi had just told me that when he started learning the kayageum in the 1950s only 10 new instruments were being made every year; now it’s closer to 10,000. Seoul National University was the first to establish a course in traditional music, in 1959. Now there are 20 universities to offer it.

And it’s not just casual tourists who come to see ceremonies such as the Jongmyo rites. More recently, visiting scholars from China, where such ceremonies have been lost, have come to see how Korea has preserved the ancient traditions. To what extent is the Jongmyo Daeje put on just for tourists, or is it something which is a real, living part of Korean life? Well, the speeches and introductory videos which precede the main ceremony at the Jeongjeon might suggest that the event is primarily intended as a piece of public spectacle – in which of course it is incredibly successful. But among the crowds witnessing the event are surviving members of the Yi royal dynasty, who are there to pay respects to their ancestors.

The promotion of traditional culture is a task which is never finished, as there are always new generations of audience to educate. But the Cultural Heritage Foundation is satisfied with progress so far. And even if younger generations are not always going to be grabbed by traditional music or other items of cultural heritage, travellers from abroad, and particularly from countries in Asia with shared Confucian, Sino-centric heritage will want to experience Korea’s ancient traditions which are still maintained today.

Note: much of the material from the interview with the Cultural Heritage Foundation has been used in my account of the Jongmyo Rituals themselves.

  1. The fact that these outlets are run by a government organisation seems to answer a question that troubled me last time I passed through Incheon: why don’t these shops include selected CDs of easily accessible Korean traditional music, or the gugak fusion CDs heard in tourist shops everywhere? I’m guessing that a CD by, say, the Sookmyung Kayageum Orchestra would be outside of the remit of these stores, because it is not a product created by the holder of an intangible cultural property. It’s a slight pity that tourists are not able to make a harmless impulse-buy of this nature. []

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