A village of 100 museums
By Kim Ji-myung
The small town of Yeongwol in Gangwon Province held an unusual international meeting of more than 130 scholars and experts from 20 countries on Korean studies, environment, design and museums in May.
The former coal mining town hopes to change its identity. The county government renamed the town to “Young World” in English, so it is similar sounding to its original Korean name. Its dream is to become a cultural place with a clean environment and many spots to visit, full of stories, historic sites, and mainly museums.
To most Koreans, the region reminds them of the clean and beautiful Donggang (East River). People over 65 remember the good old days of the mining town when it was a bustling economic center, rich with coal money. The shopkeepers of the relatively calm town still have a certain ambiance, and proudly claim that things are not cheaper there than in Seoul.
Most people of the younger generation have no particular image of the county. Donggang is probably the best and only renowned symbol associated with the area because it is the best river for white-water rafting in the nation.
There are already 20 museums in this small town with a population of under 40,000. In the 1960s, 125,000 people lived in the village, and people dreamt of it becoming a city. It is fortunate that a remarkable number of people have recently moved to the county in a major reversal of the ever-decreasing population trend.
What could make the region special and attractive in the future? Why should people visit and stay in this town some three-hour drive from Seoul? Competition to attract visitors and tourists among local governments is already tough.
People love museums. Parents are especially happy when they see their children viewing artifacts, touching objects, and learning and experiencing diverse topics in museums. People wonder why the World Folk Instrument Museum, Religious Art Museum, and even the African Museum are in the county. It is thanks to its initiative over the past 10 years to provide incentives to owners of diverse collections.
There are also museums with local origins. The Fossil Museum displays 320 fossils excavated from the area. The Insectarium is proud to display many local and imported rare species, not only in glass cases but as living creatures. The Joseon Era (1392-1910) Folk Painting Museum, Ceramic Art Gallery, and Tea Set Museum clearly connect the local history with people.
The county envisions having 100 museums in the area, and hopes to see them attract more visitors, boost the reputation and image of the county as well as the income of the local residents.
Is the “Village of 100 Museums” enough to bring people there? People stand in a queue to see one killer item such as the Mona Lisa of the Louvre in Paris or the Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Spring by 15th Century Korean painter An Gyeon at the Tenri University Library in Japan.
Then what could be the magic item in this county?
It is true that there are many outstanding story resources. There is the tomb of King Danjong, who was poisoned in 1,457 while living in exile after losing the throne to his uncle. The famous roving poet Kim Satgat, who travelled to all corners of the land from 22 to 57, hid his face under a straw hat (satgat) to repent his criticism of his grandfather out of ignorance of his family history.
The International Museum of Modern Art has a resident artist program. Invited artists from many countries work for a few months at Yeongwol. An exhibition is held to show their work at the end of their stay. The former mining town aims to become a culture-based destination.
With this backdrop, the county started a bold new initiative. Together with the central government, a large-scale resort called “Donggang CISTA” was constructed along the river. A convention hall, smaller meeting rooms, restaurants, and accommodation facilities were completed in May. A golf course and spa are currently under construction in the same compound.
The recent international symposium “Yeongwol-Yonsei Forum” marked the opening of Donggang CISTA. It will be held every two years and the region hopes it can globalize through the opening of the resort.
Mayor Park Seon-gyu explained CI is the Korean word “poem”, and STA means “star” which you cannot avoid seeing in the clear Yeongwol night sky. I wonder if they tried the name on a native audience. Globalization of communication seems quite difficult to achieve.
A unique approach to the forum is getting experts’ advice following their on-site inspection. The good news is that the experienced experts and consultants for similar projects approved of the long-term vision. The following were the recommendations for future steps.
— As tourism in Yeongwol grows, much more information should be provided in English at museums and historic sites for foreign visitors.
— Some sites may have to improve access for people who have physical difficulties.
— Before building the museums, consider the operating budget for the first three years at least — what does it look like, what does it support, and how will it be sustained?
Yeongwol must invest in the museums created, not only as funders, but as active community participants. If they do not, they will have no reason to support them once they are built and are left to be only tourist attractions.
By careful and pursue well planned implementation of the “100- Museum Village” plan, I expect to see Yeongwol create one of the rare success stories in the world.
The writer is a first-generation official simultaneous interpreter in Korea. She is chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute and can be reached at email@example.com.