Korea Day at the Freer and Sackler Galleries

On the way to Sackler Gallery (Freer is now closed for renovation)

It was another balmy spring day in Washington DC. Hundreds of visitors were lining up in the front garden of Sackler Gallery, holding fans and kites with Korean traditional decorations. It was the ‘Korean Day’ of the year, an annual family festival that introduces Korean traditions through various cultural activities. This year, the gallery prepared a wide spectrum of activities from hands-on art program to Gayageum (가야금, Korean traditional music instrument) performance, to increase awareness on Korean cultures. As a high school Minhwa artist and Haegum (해금, Korean traditional music instrument) player who has studied traditional arts for eight years, I was impressed at how Korean traditions are getting popularity in DC and wondered how the gallery would portray our unique cultures. Without any hesitation, I headed to Sackler, the Smithsonian’s museum of Asian art.

Pamphlets of ‘Korea Day’

From 11 AM to 4 PM, visitors were welcomed to participate in five programs that each introduced different aspects of Korean cultures and traditions. Kids were excited to go to hand craft sessions and make yeons (연, Korean traditional kite) and bu-chae (부채, referred as fans) with traditional decorations. Visitors ranging from a young student to an adult watched Taekwondo demonstrations that show one of the most well-known Korean traditional sports. It was more than glad to see how a wide spectrum of people from all races and age groups got intrigued by Korean traditions and joined the programs. However,  I could easily tell that most of the booths lacked sufficient resources and staffs. All they had were a few papers, wood sticks, and several color pencils for kids to color their worlds.

Kids making Korean traditional fans (부채)

There seemed to be no staff who could give proper instructions nor rice paper and tools needed to make traditional kites and fans. According to an intern who was supporting the festival as a staff, the fund provided from the Korean government this year decreased by more than half than last year. Such lack of support from the government made it inevitable for the gallery to prepare the event with the minimum amount of money they could possibly spend.

On the last floor of the gallery, I soon found a place that caught my attention at once. It was the exhibition of Minhwa artworks, the form of Korean traditional folk art that I have worked on for years. Works by a Korean American artist Min Sun Oh were exhibited right in front of the souvenir shop.

Minhwa exhibitions (Korean traditional folk painting)

Minhwa is unconventional form of traditional Korean art that was highly prosperous in the 17th century. It represents the freedom and will of common people and expresses their innermost thoughts and dreams. This unique type of painting has various themes such as wealth, health, happiness, prosperity, and longevity of lives that were conceived as unique values of Korean cultures. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Prof. Jungsil Lee from Washington University of Virginia who coordinated the Minhwa exhibition booth at the festival. She is the one who provided a great support to the festival of this year by inviting several Minhwa artists and asking the museum to promote more programs relevant to Korean arts. She told me that she was disappointed at the lack of Korean art pieces at Sackler compared to Chinese and Japanse works and started to ask the gallery to put a more focus on Korean arts. This Minhwa exhibition was another effort for her to increase awareness on Korean arts.

Talking with her about how traditional arts impacted her life, I was able to rethink about the power of traditions and cultures. I believe that cultures like arts and music could be used as a great tool when bridging people with different backgrounds. As an international student studying in the States, I see how the diverse population of the States with people from a number of different places have prejudices against each other without any effort to know about others. I do believe that art and music could be the best way to draw attention so that we could appreciate all forms of cultures. This would be the first step of cultural exchange, and I think programs such as Korea Festival are the best opportunities for us to let ourselves open to all cultures and values. However, I do believe that there are various ways we could improve the program. I couldn’t help thinking that the booths and activity sessions of the festival were at a superficial level. They were showing very basic parts of Korean traditions and ultimately failed to provide the visitors with the chances to take a deep look into Korean cultures. People who come to such event are the ones who are already interested in our cultures and are willing to take a deep look into them; however, all that the gallery was showing were very basic like Taekwondo and yeons. I believe we could introduce a more various aspects of our cultures that would be more compelling to get to know about.

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