Dinosaur, Palace, Jewel, Pig, Park, and Butterfly Museum
The Historia Naturalis on Museums
Written by: Yeon-ha Choi (Independent Curator, Photography Critic)
In the Korean language, bak-mul-gwan is the word used to refer to the English word museum. The root of this very familiar word can be traced back all the way to a small village called Livadia, near the famous ancient city of Delphi. In this village were the two springs of Lethe and Mnemosyne, representing oblivion and remembrance. Forgetfulness and memory were one and the same to start with, and to Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and Zeus, the god of Heaven, were born nine daughters, referred to as the Mousai or Muses. The house in which they lived was a mousaion, from which the word museum was derived. Museum – the sacred shrine of the Muses, the goddesses of art – and bak-mul-gwan – the place for all sorts of rare artifacts – do seem rather aloof to be placed in the same semantic field but, ultimately, they are not too far off from each other in that they are places where we can see traces of those who came before us. It is in a museum or bak-mul-gwan (or gallery) where oblivion is awakened and memory is clarified, enriching the lives we live today. Despite the etymology, the modern museum is closer to a shopping mall, resembling a shrine to capitalism. Exhibitions are increasingly turning into spectacles for us to gawk at, having become part of a cultural industry that encourages spending. The art gallery is now more in tune with such spectacles than the art itself. Cities around the world are competitively building galleries, hosting international art events, and conspiring with the market economy. We witness how they actively turn themselves into department stores. The entrance and exit of such exhibitions are connected to museum shops, cafés, or restaurants, and exhibited collections (real) are mass-produced into art products (replicas) for consumption. Collections are both visually and physically consumed, lowering the bar and bursting open the doors to all those willing to pay for entry. The irony is that the museum – the sacred shrine of the Muses – has merged with the boisterous display of all worldly things, giving birth to the modern art gallery. No matter how hard the art gallery argues that it is open to all and accepts all equally, the experiences therein are contradictory. Inside, there is a glass wall that remains invisible to the general public.
The Shrine of Memory – the Museum To the contrary, the museums collected (photographed) by Jeong-ae Han are small, cozy, and adorable, inviting all who are willing to enter and greet what is on display. Just as a collector collects items, Han photographed buildings advertised with a ‘museum’ sign all across South Korea. Insisting on frontal shots, she took several dozen photographs from the front in order to make sure that the façade was clearly captured, adjusting them horizontally and vertically to produce a final cut. As a member of the Gyeonggi Archive Photography Society, the photographer has archived the cities of Gyeonggi-do Province. One of her notable works is Project: Dream of Hwaseong, a chronicle of Dongtan’s transformation into becoming a new city, which began in 2012 and continues to date, serving as a foundation for the artist’s work. As an artifact is put on display at a museum, a photographer-archivist is fundamentally committed to the integrity of metadata. The time and location of shooting and the camera data are what underlines the value of a photograph as a record and the channel through which the power of photography as record is shared. In this age of digital oblivion, the value of photographic records is felt even more desperately on the part of the photographer. To her mind, puttingindividuals, neighbors, and local communities on record has become more momentous than anything else, with traces of the past fading as swiftly as they are in modern Korea. She must have started by recording the recent past and what is left of nearby neighborhoods, finally arriving at the shrine of memory, or the museum. The speed at which records die out is catching up with the pace at which records are kept and preserved. The more the accuracy of a record improves, the faster oblivion sprints ahead, just as the faster analog records are digitalized, the more valuable they become. It is akin to the phenomenon in which the ‘aura’ of artwork is more frequently discussed in the digital age and is empowered even more accordingly. Even under the current rule of cyberspace, artifacts in a museum still exude unapproachable sanctity because of the inherent desire to see the unreplicated original in person. The museums that Han archived do not interfere with our sense of daily life but rather invite us to visit a time in the distant past or a strange place in a strange land, all while creating settings that feel somehow familiar and comfortable. Even if the museum artifacts are not completely restored, or even if they are replicas, viewers are ready and willing to be surprised. To them, experiencing artifacts is like dreaming of a time they will never have the chance to live through.
Document, Monument, Museum In Han’s photographs, museums have descended into the secular world. They are full of things for families to see and enjoy, comprised of content that parents can easily explain to their children, and the collections are highly satisfactory for visitors. Local galleries (museums) tear down the walls that protect high-end culture and create down-to-earth exhibitions that strive to merge the obscure with popular culture. They openly showcase art products that are replicated and distributed, operating almost as part of the leisure industry. Just as the modern-day art gallery is a shrine that worships the secular god of money, our museums offer information and entertainment to present people with a sense of value and hope. For those who have never visited the Colosseum, they are given the opportunity to snap a selfie they can later show others as proof that they have indeed visited the monument. Even those who have never been to Africa are made to fly over it virtually in no time at all. Or visitors can experience flight as a butterfly or even a conversation with a pig. Walks around a gem-like palace or a garden built from ice add to the options available to visitors. Browse the collection and discover Haewoojae (Mr. Toilet House) by Jae-duck Sim – dubbed ‘Mr. Toilet’ – who torn down a home of 30 years to build a toilet-shaped house to commemorate the foundation of the World Toilet Association; the Motor Museum, the one and only of its kind in Korea, established by Hee-yang Lee, a motor engine collector; the Museum of World Scissors in Jinan; the Kim Museum, a museum supposedly created by a person with the same family name; the Sudoguksan Museum of Housing & Living; and Young Jip Bow and Arrow Museum, founded by Young Jip Young-ki Yoo, a bow-and-arrow craftsman. These small museums found across Korea offer fun and informative facts for visitors – regardless of their age or background – urging them to reminisce on good times or presenting options for varying ranges of exotic, coded tastes. Boasting up to six keywords (the Alps, ice, jewel, palace, theme park, and museum), the Alps Ice Jewel Palace Theme Park Museum is kitsch beyond kitsch that breeds vigorously and incessantly. Derived from a German word that means ‘rubbish’ or ‘tacky,’ kitsch was originally used to refer to cheap, popular pictures geared for people without any aesthetic insight or experience. These works pop up everywhere all too often to the point of being cliché, which is exactly why they seep into the minds of the general public. The wider they spread, the more powerful they become. But kitsch is also a sign that points to abundance. It embraces fantastic romance and pleasure, along with a hint of refinement and universality. It fills free time with fun and excitement, comprising popular hobbies that seek to fill our empty lives with virtual beauty. Kitsch is the entertaining trivia strewn across daily life that satisfies the average sense of sentimentality so often employed by soap operas on TV, in addition to the desires of the sentimental bourgeoisie. It is loose and passive and yet commercial, unconsciously political, and highly infectious, particularly raging in today’s era governed by social media. Such is ‘kitsch-like’ – hackneyed but cheerful, lightly serious yet pleasant, and easy to understand without requiring much effort. The museums captured by Han reveal our raw preferences, leaving us at pleasurable ease. The photographs that demonstrate universal tastes cultured in our time are the documents and monuments etched in time, retrievable whenever we are reminded of the mode that governed a certain period in time.
Time Museum Among Han’s photographs is the image of a most iconic museum – the Time Museum, located in Jeongdongjin. Set up within a steam engine and a 180-meter-long train, the museum is based on the theme of ‘time.’ Braced by powerful symbols that span many levels, the Time Museum shows that museums are a relic or a tomb of time, with human travelers onboard a train of ‘time’ hurtling onward non-stop. Time travels swiftly like an arrow that has left its bow, opening our eyes to the limitations of finite existence. Visitors hop onboard the Time Museum train to summon the dead (relics) and converse with them while imagining the future to come. The phrase “Selected by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism as the institution offering accredited curatorship” on the top right of the photograph is rather adorable. These little museums of ours need professional curators and are desperate for government funding, but the conditions to become an accredited gallery pursuant to the Museum and Art Gallery Support Act seem unachievable for many.
It has been some time since I reviewed photographs offering so much to read. Each one loudly called out to me to spare some attention, and I spent much time listening to each. In Jeong-ae Han’s photographs, the museums are not still; they are rather a dynamis that harbors the potential to produce new interpretations and discourses. Just as museum collections are interpreted in varying ways, the photographs urge us to rediscover the memory of museums in our time and experience them anew
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As a member of the Gyeonggi Archive Photography Society, I began traveling across Yeoju and Icheon in 2018 to capture a record of the area’s museums, later expanding the scope of my journey to cover all eight provinces of South Korea, capturing the contents of more than a hundred museums over the last two years. Most of the museums that I collected records on did not resemble a typical museum. Among the images of the museums, there are many that have ventured outside of the standard dictionary definition of a museum (as an institution that collects, preserves, and displays archaeological materials, historical relics, artworks, or other academic content for the general public and for the purpose of contributing to academic research and educating society) to seek profit. They are sometimes introduced as exhibition centers, experience centers, literary centers, parks, or even research institutes. Some employ advertising signs on their exteriors or include architectural structures that provoke entertainment-oriented curiosity. They use external elements to explicitly express their themes, ranging from common objects (e.g. citrus fruits, scissors, a mask, or a kitchen) to pop culture and modern interests (e.g. time, peace, mythology, modern history, classic cultural content, and sex).
During this archiving, I was reminded of the word mouseion, the root of museum. The functions and features of these museums seemed closer to what used to be a cultural complex that encompassed theater, music, and exhibitions in Egypt in 3 B.C. Due to physical restraints (such as narrow alleyways) found in many of these smaller, private museums, along with their particular locations, I was often prevented from fully capturing the buildings in a single cut. I had to climb a ladder to take several dozen shots from above, later adjusting the images in Photoshop in order to produce a final cut. Throughout the process, I have noticed that there are museums that could not yield a proper frontal view due to their locations in confined spaces, or those that have been renovated, damaged, or even closed due to financial reasons.
Small museums are interestingly unique, reflecting the popular culture and interests of the current time, but they are difficult to preserve and rarely remain as social, cultural public archives. This is precisely why I have undertaken this job of photographic archiving, but it was a job that sent me to endless corners across the country, which proved to be highly time-consuming and physically taxing. Without my husband by my side to support me, I could not have completed what I started. While I had focused on personal value and artistic expression in my previous work, Secret Garden, Historia Naturalis on Museums was intended to capture and recreate the sociocultural significance of museums, giving me a great challenge while stepping into a new genre.
by Han Jung-ae