Museum of Natural History Developing Gallery Of Korean History

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007

The National Museum of Natural History is developing a gallery dedicated to the traditional arts and history of Korea.

The installation, supported by a gift from the Korea Foundation, opens in May. It will have as many as 4,000 artifacts, with many coming from the Smithsonian anthropology department's collection. The foundation is giving $1.25 million for the 10-year exploration of Korean life and culture.

"We want to have a series of examinations of Asian identities, how they were formed and how the people of Asia have maintained their identities," said Paul Michael Taylor, an anthropologist and director of the museum's Asian Cultural History Program. "For 5,000 years Korea was one country. The identity of Korea as a people is quite ancient. Today Korea is a very modern, dynamic place and that new wave gets a lot of dynamism, richness and symbolism from the past."

The gallery on the second floor of the sprawling museum will cover 1,000 square feet in a part of the museum that is under renovation. The idea grew out of the museum's Korean Heritage Project, a program founded in 1985. Eventually the museum plans to have a Hall of Asian Cultures, Taylor said.

The Korean materials first came to the Smithsonian through diplomatic and missionary efforts in the late 19th century. Those explorations brought back collections that included a stone knife from the 5th or 6th century B.C. and ceramic pieces that had been buried for 1,500 years. The gallery will also explore the peninsula's natural history and geography, as well as the lives of Koreans living outside Korea.

Though the museum is known for its gems and mammals, it has always featured cultural exhibits. The museum has a permanent show on the history and cultures of the African continent, called "African Voices."

Funds from groups related to foreign governments have been used for cultural efforts at the Smithsonian in the past, including the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Park Kyoung Chul, the director general of the Korea Foundation's Washington office, said the group was financing galleries at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the British Museum in London. "The Korea Foundation is dedicated to promoting the understanding and awareness of Korea," Park said.

He said the Natural History Museum offered a broader range of cultural materials than the Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian's Asian art museums. They emphasize fine arts.

The foot traffic at the Natural History site didn't hurt either, Park said.

A report released this week said Natural History drew the largest number of visitors of any Smithsonian museum in 2006. It attracted 5.8 million people, compared to 5 million at the National Air and Space Museum, perennially the busiest of the Mall museums.

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