A Korean homecoming

What started out as a museum’s straightforward request to borrow a handful of objects from our collection turned out instead to be a recent event of international significance.

Zither, late 19th century, Korea. Peabody Essex Museum.

Zither, late 19th century, Korea. Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Walter Silver/PEM

The first hint that the eight ancient Korean musical instruments traveling from PEM to the National Museum of Korea were something very special was the contingent of musicians and performers that met the shipment at the loading dock at South Korea’s Inchon International Airport. As the containers were being gently transferred from the plane’s cargo bay to a customized, air-cushioned art freight truck on the tarmac, musicians and dancers in beautiful robes performed a traditional welcoming ceremony, playing modern versions of the ancient instruments that sat securely inside their specially designed crates.


PEM objects arrive to much fanfare at the Inchon International Airport. Photo by Alyssa Langlais.

It seems clear that for Koreans, these ancient instruments from PEM’s collection represent a special part of the country’s past, and had come full circle as they returned to their county of origin.

The story starts in 1893, when Chicago held a World’s Fair to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. Called the World’s Columbian Exposition, it was the largest and most extravagant such event ever staged. Among many other architectural wonders, the fair included the original Ferris Wheel, built by George Ferris, which was 264 feet (80 m) high and had 36 cars, each of which could accommodate 60 people.


The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Staged in a series of pavilions within the fairgrounds, nations from all over the world sent trade missions to showcase their country’s industrial, cultural and artistic wonders. Among the Korean representatives were a group of musicians, who had brought with them the finest examples of ancient Korean instruments, including drums, flutes, a zither-like instrument and elaborate mouth harps.

At the time, PEM was one of the only museums in America collecting works of Korean art and culture, and the then director Edward Sylvester Morse dispatched a colleague to Chicago to inquire about purchasing the instruments at the conclusion of the fair for the museum’s collection. The works were acquired and they’ve been here ever since.

The Korean exhibition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

The Korean exhibition pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, in the intervening years, the Korean nation suffered many upheavals, from invasion and occupation by the Japanese, to partition following WWII and eventually military action between North and South as well as other international powers. During these conflicts, much of Korea’s material culture was stolen, destroyed or lost. It turns out that the instruments in PEM’s collection are the finest examples of such items that still exist anywhere in the world, including in Korea.

To commemorate the 120th anniversary of Korea’s participation in the 1893 Chicago fair, and to bring back for display extraordinarily rare objects, the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, in association with the Korean Institute for Traditional Music and Dance, planned a special exhibition titled Musical Instruments of Joseon in America. Joseon refers to the Korean dynasty that lasted from 1392-1897.


Press coverage in The Korea Herald.

It was these instruments in crates that gently rolled off the ramp in Inchon. The Korean minister of culture requested that PEM send a representative to participate in the opening ceremonies. Dan Monroe, PEM’s director, was unavailable, so I was asked to go in his stead as a member of the senior leadership team.


The author visiting the ‘Musical Instruments of Joseon in America’ exhibition at the National Museum of Korea.

I had never been anywhere in Asia before. Worse, I knew next to nothing about Korean art, culture or history. I knew there was a war there that involved the American military, but the history of that conflict was always kinda fuzzy to me. I did know enough not to visit North Korea while I was there.

Arriving in Seoul, I was confronted by the largest city I had ever seen. From the highest point in the city (atop a very tall observation tower), I could see vast swaths of white high-rise apartments, grouped in village-like clusters, for as far as the eye could see—in every direction, covering every inch of buildable land. Yet, right in the center of the city, like a calm oasis of beautifully landscaped residential tranquility, sat the American military base. From above, it looked indistinguishable from a small suburban town in California.


The view of Seoul from an observation tower.

After a day and a half of museum-hopping, from the National Folk Museum to the War Memorial of Korea, to the National Museum of Korea, the rest of my time in Seoul was a whirlwind of opening ceremonies, traditional music performances, speeches, press interviews, meetings with Korean and American diplomats, politicians and cultural leaders. All to celebrate the (temporary) return of nine, unassuming but beautifully crafted ancient instruments. The crush of press photographers crammed into what seemed to me a rather modest exhibition made it feel like Beyoncé had just arrived.


Members of the Korean press attend the exhibition opening.

It was certainly an indication of what happens when so much of a nation’s cultural patrimony is wiped out. That which is left tends to be seen as incredibly precious. I was very honored to have represented for the Korean people the institution that had saved and cared for these objects all this time.


The author being interviewed by Korean press at the National Museum of Korea.

For my last evening in Seoul, my new friends took me out to a traditional Korean restaurant, making sure I would not leave their country without sampling some local delicacies. All I can say is, beware of a restaurant that features a section called “Live Corner.” The signature dish was something I will never forget, and did in fact eat.


  1. Gail says:

    How sad for the South Koreans to lose so much of their material cultural heritage. Does the current government negotiate with foreign institutions and private collectors about purchasing back some of their patrimony? Sounds like a thrilling trip.

  2. Linda Button says:

    Fantastic , honest account of an unforgettable trip. Love the comparison of these treasured Korean instruments to an American treasure, Beyoncé. And kudos to Mr. Finney for eating a living dish. Did it have an electric jolt to it?

  3. David Johnstone says:

    Well Mr Finney
    Do tell what you ate? Was it worse than the haggis that you have eaten in my house?

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