Koreatown Museum Bridges the Cultural Gap for Americans, Koreans

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Robert Turley, left, and Jongsuk Sung, right in silver coat, explain the significance of Korean cultural artifacts during a museum tour. Photo: Anna Irrera.

Karen Madsen leaned over the glass case, peering with great interest at the assortment of colorful knots; clumps of jewel-colored tassels all consisting of a single, long thread. As she considered the traditional Korean knots, called norigae, Robert Turley explained the knots’ incredible value as artifacts that were difficult to come by, owned only by those who were royal or extremely wealthy.

“It’s really rare to see this many in a display — even in the national collections. Very rare. Some of these pieces would go for six figures,” he added, his tone appropriately awed.

Madsen was one of a small group of people, both of American and Korean ancestry, touring the Lee Young Hee Museum of Korean Culture on 32nd Street, better known as the main drag of Manhattan’s Koreatown. Opened in 2004 at the behest of fashion designer Lee Young Hee, the museum now plays host to monthly cultural events and daily visitors. Almost all of the museum’s 700 pieces were donated by Hee.

Museum owner Jongsuk Sung guided visitors among glass cases of traditional Korean clothing and artifacts, explaining the significance of each — what fabrics were used, what social class a garment represented, even the cultural meaning of different animals.

“Cranes are a symbol of longevity. Tigers are for military officers.” She gestured to a pair of stylized wooden geese wrapped in fabric. “A groom would give this to a wife on their wedding day as a symbol of loyalty, because geese are very loyal to each other.”

The group touring the museum had come because of the Korean Art Society, an organization dedicated to fostering an appreciation for Korean art and culture, of which Robert Turley is president. The organization currently has more than 2,000 members worldwide. In New York, the group frequently holds meetings and classes within the museum, ranging from traditional Korean teatime to cooking classes to examples of traditional music.

“When I came here [to America] 37 years ago, no one knew about Korea,” said Sung, the museum’s owner and director. “People would ask, ‘Do you speak Japanese?’ I was so upset that no one knew! Korea is very proud of our history. We’re very small, but we have 5,000 years of history.”

Sung said the museum is an effort to introduce Americans to Korean culture, to inform them, and to bridge the gap between the two cultures.

“We think Americans should know about Korean to enrich American culture,” she said. “It is also about second-generation Korean mothers, then they can let their children know about their culture. Many Americans only know about the Korean War, but [Korea] has a long history.”

Turley, who developed an interest in Korean culture when he visited the country years ago as a musician, peppered the tour with cultural facts as the group went along.

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The one-room museum houses 700 pieces of traditional Korean clothing and artifacts. Photo: Anna Irrera.

“The Korean alphabet is amazing,” he said. “It’s perfectly phonetic. You can learn it in an hour.”

Korean culture is one of the world’s best-kept secrets, Turley said, which is something he’s hoping to change. Already, the society has seen a great deal of interest — many of the society’s earliest organized trips to cultural showcases filled up immediately.

“Organizations charged with promoting Korea, like the government, do a great job of keeping it a secret,” he said. “I keep hoping that attitude will change.”

Turley said few Korean art pieces exist today around the world. Some of the art was lost or destroyed in the years of violence from neighboring countries like China or Japan. Other pieces were burned following a tradition of Tao — a Chinese belief system — that when a person dies, their personal belongings are burned.

Madsen in particular was eager to learn more about Korean culture. She helps organize a series of instructional classes about Asian culture at Binghamton University in upstate Vestal, New York.

“It’s hard to distinguish among Asian cultures for these kids,” she said. “We try to find something that’s uniquely Korean. We’re here to do research and build a program that teachers kids and also teaches teachers.”

The learning continued even after the tour, when the group moved down the street to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Turley was remembering a trip the society took to a museum in Minneapolis when one of the visitors called down the table to him.

“Field trips? When are you going to Korea?” she had said. “Let me know — I’m so there.”

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