National treasure conservation projects finally see the limelight
DAEJEON — Thirteen pieces of traditional Korean masks, known as the Hahoe Mask and Byeongsan Mask of Andong, are state-designated national treasures. But these important cultural heritages that are supposed to be placed carefully inside a showcase at the Hahoe Mask Museum in Andong, North Gyeongsang, were instead lying on a desk, out in the open, at the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage in Daejeon on Nov. 3.
“Wow, is this really the national treasure we learned about in school?” said Lim So-hyung, a university student majoring in Conservation Science of Cultural Heritage at Kongju National University. “The traces of time are evident as I look at the masks up close. It’s amazing to see the detail of craftsmanship as well.”
It’s a rare opportunity indeed for members of the general public to see important cultural heritages like state-designated national treasures outside of a museum. Touching, of course, is still not allowed, but the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage’s Cultural Heritage Conservation Science Center opens its door to about a dozen people to witness what goes on behind the doors of the center, once every year.
On Nov. 3, the group of selected participants got to witness how different types of Korea’s cultural heritages, many of which are state-designated national treasures, get restored by professionals, so that they can continue to survive and be passed down generation after generation.
Similar to how humans make hospital visits when they feel sick, or even just for a checkup, cultural heritages, too, are not immune to visiting their version of a hospital — the Cultural Heritage Conservation Science Center — to receive a checkup or conservation treatments. During the process, facts previously unbeknownst often get discovered, scientific data gets collected for further research and restoration works get done in areas necessary.
The visitors got to witness how cultural heritages of different materials, like that of a stupa, a mural, a glit-bronze Bodhisattva, an old winter jeogori (the jacket part of hanbok, or traditional Korean clothes) and even a submachine gun excavated in the demilitarized zone, get scanned and treated during the visit. Gasps of astonishment were made in various rooms by different people, but all guests seemed to be equally amazed by one cultural heritage in particular — the traditional masks.
Korea’s traditional masks have recently come under the spotlight after the evaluation body of the Unesco Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage recommended talchum, a traditional mask dance of Korea, to be inscribed on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List at the next official committee, set to take place in Morocco from Nov. 28.
The representative style of Korean traditional masks is Andong’s Hahoe and Byeongsan masks. The masks are known to be the oldest existing stage play masks in Korea, dating back to the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). These masks are recognized internationally for their exquisite production technique and detailed expressions.
The masks were transferred to the Cultural Heritage Conservation Science Center in October last year and have been undergoing restoration for about a year — the first treatment the masks have received since being designated as a national treasure in 1964.
“We are nearly done with treatment, and they will be ready to go back to the museum next month,” said Song Ji-ae, a researcher at the center who has been in charge of the conservation project of the masks.
Damage was evident on the masks even as it was designated as a national treasure, but since the center can only carry out a certain number of projects at a time, which often gets decided depending on the urgency, the masks had to wait for their turn.
“As they were used a lot by people back in the day during talchum performances, all the masks were badly damaged,” said Song. “Like all cultural heritages, the items go through different scans like 3-D, CT and MRI scans as well as different X-rays once they come into the center, so that we can figure out the different materials that were used, the exact size of everything and so on. We can also find out what kind of repairs were made in the past without damaging the items. That’s when we discover numerous new facts about our cultural heritages. Then we proceed with the restorations where necessary, using the correct materials.”
Song said she’s in the process of writing a thorough report covering the new discoveries on the masks, like what type of wood was used for each mask, how exactly it was created — all the information that had been passed down orally that can now be backed up scientifically.
Many cultural heritages come and go, but Song says it will be especially difficult to say goodbye to the masks.
“I might cry when they leave,” she said. “It was an honor to study the masks and carry out restoration treatments on them. I was amazed whenever I took a closer look — amazed at the craftsmanship, the method and the detail. If it weren’t for this job, I would have not been able to put my hands on such precious items, right? I am sad to let them go, but I hope they never have to come back here.”
Like the traditional masks, many national treasures of different materials that have been treated in different rooms will soon leave the center, which had served as their home for at least the last five to six years.
A funerary stupa honoring eminent Goryeo monk and State Preceptor Jigwang (984-1067) is one such piece. In the Stone Conservation Room, this national treasure was being cleaned with an expensive fiber laser machine by researcher Lee Tae-jong.
The stupa was originally located in Beopcheon Temple, a Buddhist temple once located around today’s Wonju, Gangwon. Regarded as one of the finest of its kind produced during the Goryeo Dynasty, the stupa had a rough life before ending up in the center in 2016. In 1911, it was relocated to Seoul and then smuggled to Osaka the following year. It then was returned back to Korea after a few years and was erected in the precincts of Gyeongbok Palace. However, during the Korean War (1950-53), it was severely damaged and experts raised concerns of its safety. In 2015, the Cultural Heritage Administration announced after a series of safety diagnosis that the stupa would inevitably have to go through a complete dismantlement for a total repair treatment. The cracks have since been sealed, and broken parts have been replaced with “as similar stone possible,” according to Lee.
“We were able to find out after scanning it that it was repaired using concrete several times. At the center, we had to dismantle the whole thing, scrape off all the concrete, scan the stupa using 3-D scanning and create the missing parts using stone that is as similar as possible,” said Lee. “We are now in the process of cleaning all these black parts on the surface, which is carbon. Using this fiber laser, we can scrape it off carefully, without damaging the stupa.”
The stupa may be ready to leave the center by the end of this month, or by early next year at the latest, though the authorities have not yet decided its final destination.
Lee said the fiber laser alone costs about 100 million won ($75,000) and that there are not many facilities that own the machine, but if the price of the machine becomes cheaper, it can be more commonly used by institutions dealing with cultural heritages to clean the items made from stone, like the famous walls of Deoksu Palace, which provide a great walk for its citizens, said Lee. “I witnessed the walls darkening a lot over time. That’s carbon, and it’ll never come off with regular cleaning.”
In the Murals Conservation Room, an important set of paintings was taking a rest after undergoing a series of scans. The national treasure, Mural Painting in Josadang Shrine of Buseok Temple, left its temple in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang, which was home to the paintings at its birth, presumed to be during the late Goryeo Dynasty, for the first time and came to the center in June 2020.
Depicting six Buddhist deities — the four Guardian Kings, Brahma Deva and Indra — these mural paintings had been displayed on the inner wall of the Josadang Shrine, which is also a national treasure, in Buseok Temple. The shrine was built to honor Buddhist Monk Uisang (625-702), founder of the temple and Avatamsaka School in Korea. When the building had to be dismantled for safety issues, the paintings got taken down and had been kept in boxes and stored in Muryangsujeon, the main prayer hall of Buseok Temple. However, as the paintings were showing signs of damage, they had to be sent to the center for treatment.
“This set of six paintings are known to be the oldest paintings existing for a temple in Korea,” said Jeong So-young, the director of the Cultural Heritage Conservation Science Center. “Because the paintings are so old and delicate, transferring it to the center from the temple required special care, special equipment, special vehicles that don’t shake so much, and experts supervising it every step of the way.”
It’s not only national treasures the center studies and treats. Recently, the center decided to collaborate with the Ministry of National Defense to excavate articles left by the soldiers during the Korean War in the demilitarized zone. They were able to excavate thousands of articles, ranging from a fork and a helmet to a shoe and even a submachine gun.
“Using X-rays and CT scans, we were able to find out how many bullets are still left in this machine gun,” said Lee Jae-sung, a researcher in the Metal Conservation Room. “With proper scanning and conservation treatment, our aim is to find out more about the Korean War, and possibly the owners of the articles.”
Jeong, the director, said, “work here is a strenuous job, and it’s not a position where you get the spotlight or the applause, but we hope visitors witness how important their role is through this experience we open up once a year.”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]