Ji Hye Hong

Collecting Korean Things: Actors in the formation of Korean collections in Britain (1876-1961)

PhD Viva completed 2020-2021


This study investigates the British collecting of Korean objects in order to understand the transnational patterns and networks of materials culture involved in the formation of British perceptions of Korea from 1876 to 1961. It primarily focuses upon the mechanism behind collecting. As a result, it unveils the various actors and explores their collaborative processes that influenced and impacted collecting practices within the context of cultural identity. 

The timeframe begins when Japan forcefully opened Korea’s ports, encompasses Japanese annexation and finally concludes in the post-colonial period. This study is largely divided into three chronological parts, which each represent distinct periods of political, social and cultural changes. These also indicate the significant transitional aspects of collecting reflected in mainly British collections and publications. 

The first chapter looks into Britain’s initial encounters with Korea in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, in terms of British perceptions of Korea through travellers’ and scholarly literatures. Using the example of tiger skin and ceramics, it argues that the early display and collection of Korean art in Britain was impeded by a scarcity of knowledge about Japanese and British imperialism. It was also affected by those authenticity issues emerging from Korea’s colonial modernity. The second chapter pivots around the turning point of 1910, when the dramatic changes caused by Japan’s annexation of Korea led to the arrival of increasing numbers of tourists and first-hand collectors, who in turn provided a new market for the curio dealers of Korea. This chapter is primarily built on the examination of these dealers and their documents/articles. The third chapter explores the impact of the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition in London, staged against a backdrop of mixed feeling about Japan’s status on the international scene. The colonial impetus behind this exhibition was shared with concomitant exhibitions in Tokyo and Seoul. It can be juxtaposed to the South Korean government’s global art campaign of 1961, which enables a discussion of the critical dilemma when dealing with colonial data and knowledge. A final chapter considers the moon jar in the British Museum collection, renowned for its connection to several British studio potters. This chapter challenge Yanagi Sōetsu’s dominant legacy in the story of the moon jar by examining Bernard Leach’s relationship with Korean artists and cultural movements in Korea, within the context of the nationalistic movement and the re-interpretation of tradition during the 1930s.

This thesis applies Actor Network Theory (ANT), which allows for autonomous performance in the agency of actors, within the idea of culture as a network of association. This theoretical frame reveals the complex transnational nature of collecting, and the overlapping of different colonial regimes and forms of colonial modernity. This study therefore challenges the long tradition of British and Japanese Orientalist approaches, and how their intertwined relationships have imposed a master narrative upon the aesthetic values and appreciation of Korean material culture since the late nineteenth century. The unveiling of a variety of actors contributes to a new micro history and cultural narrative that will continue to support and build upon contemporary decolonising museum practices.