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Museum to offer reconciliation through dialogue

Contemporary history is the study of recent events which are closely connected to the present day. Since the people involved in those events are still alive and their view of history is very subjective, it is often difficult to decide how to interpret contemporary history. This is why it is difficult to reach a consensus on how contemporary history is viewed and explained to future generations.

Museum professionals from around the world who attended a recent international symposium in Seoul said the readiness to accommodate varying, multiple, and sometimes conflicting interpretations and willingness to discuss and acknowledge even shameful past events are key elements for establishing a museum of contemporary history.

"It is imperative that the museum seeks out and provides access to varying interpretations of the events in contemporary history shaping the national narrative," said Alissandra Cummins, chairperson of the Executive Board of UNESCO, in a keynote speech at the symposium to mark the scheduled opening of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History.

Hans-Martin Hinz of the International Council of Museums gives an opening speech at the symposium in central Seoul (photo: KOCIS).Hans-Martin Hinz of the International Council of Museums gives an opening speech at the symposium in central Seoul (photo: KOCIS).

The two-day symposium kicked off at the Press Center on November 23 with keynote speeches and panel presentations by dignitaries and academics including Cummins as well as President Hans-Martin Hinz of the International Council of Museums, director Kang Hong-bin of the Seoul Museum of History, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Choe Kwang-shik, and Korea's first Culture Minister Lee O-Young.

Because of conflicting interpretations and divergent opinions, participants of the symposium said the museum should provide an opportunity for reconciliation through dialogue.

UNESCO already identified an advocacy role for the modern museum. "The path to reconciliation... lies in a process of active dialogue," stated UNESCO in its 2009 World Report. "Engaging in such dialogue may require participants to admit fault, openly debate about competing memories, and make compromises in the interests of reconciliation and social harmony."

Korea had a turbulent modern history as it opened its door to the outside world amid the growing influence of imperialism from the late 19th to early 20th century, falling under Japanese occupation for 36 years. Shortly after its independence, it suffered the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 that claimed 4 million lives. Then it experienced decades of hardship before finally achieving democracy in the 1980s. Thus, there is much controversy over dealing with and interpreting its history.

Front row, from right: Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Choe Kwang-shik and Chairman Han Seon-gyo of the Committee on Culture, Sports, Tourism, Broadcasting and Communications attend the symposium (photo: KOCIS).
Front row, from right: Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Choe Kwang-shik and Chairman Han Seon-gyo of the Committee on Culture, Sports, Tourism, Broadcasting and Communications attend the symposium (photo: KOCIS).

Only a handful of countries around the world like Germany and Poland have contemporary history museums. Because of controversy over the interpretation of modern history, an idea of founding such a museum in France hit a stumbling block recently.

In Germany, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl proposed the founding of a museum of German history in Berlin to offer its people a permanent opportunity so that they can come to terms with their own history and be better informed about where they come from.

"In depicting international history as well as topics particular to Germany, it was important to present different points of view of history," said Hinz, "namely there is no one single 'history,' but rather that history is always subject to sometimes very different assessments of what actually happened."

Another speaker, Jari Harju, chairperson of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Archaeology and History, spoke of the museum's role in presenting difficult heritage and gave an example of the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, which he said was once engaged in what is considered unethical research in the years of colonialism.

"Museum professionals must have courage to highlight also those moments in the history of the museum that are not so glorious," Harju said.

Panelists make presentations at the symposium (photo: KOCIS).
Panelists make presentations at the symposium (photo: KOCIS).

Harju said museums, especially contemporary museums, will continue to evolve in line with societal changes and their interpretations of the past are not only up to the judgment of museum professionals but also the personal assessment of visitors.

"Museums are one of those places where people come to looking for answers," he said. "Not necessarily the final answers, but information which they can use for constructing their own personal interpretation of the past." A local museum expert said the opening of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History should be an opportunity to embrace debate and come to terms with our own history.

"People who are part of modern history are still alive and they tend to view history from their subjective point of view," said Professor Shin Sang-chel of Kyung Hee University during the symposium. "The question is who is going to decide what materials will be displayed."

"We need to allow varying and open interpretations of history," Shin said. "Rather than teaching history to the museum's visitors, it should leave judgment to them and give them an opportunity to contemplate our history."

By Limb Jae-un
Korea.net Staff Writer
Jun2@korea.kr

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