PMA Brings "Treasures From Korea" To Light

Peter Chawaga, for GPA -- It wasn't so long ago that Korea existed as a unified Eastern province, shrouded in cultural isolation from the rest of the world. A self-reliant society based on Confucian ideals entrenched itself for over 500 years during an era known as the Joseon Dynasty, a succession of rulers largely free from the influence of neighbors or foreign interests. During the Joseon Dynasty, a cultural identity was formed that is still the basis for many Korean traditions practiced today. Much of the art produced during that period is revered as national treasure and has never visited foreign soil, until now.

From March 2 to May 26, The Philadelphia Museum of Art is featuring “Treasures From Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910.” The exhibition presents over 150 works, ranging from royal screen paintings and calligraphy to ceremonial attire and ceramics. To accompany the visiting artwork, the museum is hosting a series of events designed to bring contemporary aspects of Korean culture to the forefront.

“Korea was virtually unknown a hundred years ago,” said Hyunsoo Woo, the museum’s Associate Curator of Korean Art. “Still, the culture of Korea is very ambiguous to many people. This exhibition explores the entire span of this dynasty which ended in the beginning of the modern era. It is a great resource for understanding modern contemporary culture because it left a special legacy. This really is a great way to understand Korea. I think this is the perfect timing for us to come out and inform people about this great culture.”

The exhibition is the result of a cultural exchange between the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s director Timothy Rub and the National Museum of Korea. Once this exchange developed into an opportunity to showcase some of Korea’s most valued artifacts in the United States, the challenge became a matter of how best to present these to an audience that would be seeing them for the first time.

“There were lots of discussions about how to present the materials to the audience whose knowledge about Korea is not that high,” said Woo, who was born and raised in Korea. “We wanted to tell the story built around the master works. We came up with a few themes that we thought would make it easier for our audience to follow based on their own knowledge of the different cultures. Once we had a theme set, we talked to our colleagues at the National Museum of Korea and it was a really close consultation done with that group and our colleagues here in the states.”

The first piece of Korean art in the museum's collection arrived in 1903 and since then the museum has dedicated significant resources to highlighting the region’s cultural legacy. From the late ‘90s until recently, it hosted an annual Korean Heritage weekend. Woo is one of only four museum curators dedicated to Korean art in the United States.

This unprecedented selection of icons from Korea’s longest-enduring dynastic period has been paired with an exhaustive calendar of contemporary cultural programs, from movie screenings to cooking classes. The goal is to instill visitors with new appreciation for a country that still remains mysterious to many Americans.

“Exposing yourself to a new culture and new art is always very exciting,” said Woo. “We don’t expect everyone to fall in love with this art when they attend, but we hope it can serve as a doorway to build their interest and curiosity. By having this much programming, we hope that this will be a connection people make between the traditional Korea and modern Korea.”

The Philadelphia Museum of Art will be hosting “Treasures From Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910” until May 26. In Philadelphia, the exhibition is made possible by the Exelon Foundation and PECO, as well as several other charitable organizations. For more information, visit

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