Looking Back on Materials from the Japanese Colonial period
by CHOI JUNGAH Associate Curator of the Archaeology and History Division, National Museum of Korea

During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), Japanese scholars actively surveyed Korea’s historical remains under the lead of the Japanese Government-General of Korea. The Joseon Government-General Museum, established in 1915, was the main organization involved in investigating the entire Korean peninsula, including the old capitals of Pyongyang, Gyeongju, Buyeo, and Gongju. Items excavated and collected from historical sites at that time were housed in the Joseon GovernmentGeneral Museum and were transferred to the National Museum of Korea (NMK) upon Korea’s liberation in 1945. Also handed over were various materials produced by the Joseon GovernmentGeneral Museum over 30 years, including official documents and maps of the museum as well as drawings and photos of historical sites and relics.

Type and Nature of Materials

The National Museum of Korea’s collection of materials from the Japanese colonial period can be largely divided into excavated and collected items, documents, and gelatin dry plates. the Joseon Government-General Museum surveyed various parts of the country and collected a large number of artifacts. In particular, a large number of luxurious relics of a kind never seen before were discovered during excavation of large tombs in ancient territories such as Nangnang, Silla, and Baekje.
Among them, historically meaningful items worthy of display were registered for management, but 150,000 artifacts were simply packed in wooden boxes and sent to the NMK. The documents comprise those produced by the Joseon Government-General Museum over more than 30 years until 1945. The contents are varied, including excavation reports and lists of artifacts found, reports on the current status and repair or restoration of sites and artifacts by region, and reports on the acquisition, discovery, and donation of cultural heritages. Usually, documents were collectively managed by the document department of the Government-General, but museum’s documents remained in the collection of the NMK because they contained materials related to the artifacts in its collection.

Report on survey of Oya-ri Tomb No. 18, Pyongyang

A gelatin dry plate is a photographic plate made by covering glass with gelatin emulsion.
As a part of a basic national survey for colonial rule, the Government-General produced gelatin dry plate photos of the archaeology, art, architecture, folklore, and natural environment of Korea and Manchuria. Currently, the NMK has a total of 38,170 gelatin dry plates.
In addition, the museum also has a collection of materials related to museum work, such as drawings of relics and sites measured during surveys, rubbings of inscriptions on stone, newspaper articles related to cultural heritages, and various types of modern maps.

Northern wall and ceiling of the chamber in Songsan-ri Tomb No. 6, Gongju
Seogam-ri Tomb No. 9 in Pyongyang (gilt-bronze bear-shaped table leg)
Relics from Seogam-ri Tomb No. 9 in Pyongyang exposed

Importance of Japanese Colonial Period Materials

The National Museum of Korea’s collection of Japanese colonial period materials contain related to the cultural heritages overall, such as information on survey of historical sites, management and conservation of artifacts, and exhibitions. This is because the Joseon Government-General Museum was in charge of not only the management and exhibition of the collection but also the administration of cultural heritages and related policies. Among the documents on historical sites, those related to surveys of the giant tumuli and important relics of the Three Kingdoms period are of great academic importance.
But as information was selectively reported at the time, the full details were not known. Therefore, in academic fields such as archaeology, history, and art history, there has long been great interest in the museum’s materials from the colonial period. The museum has made continued efforts to organize the materials, but the project requires a great deal of time as the collection is vast and has been scattered through different departments, with some related records missing. A list of documents and gelatin dry plates published in the latter half of the 1990s is basic data that gives insight into the nature and scale of the materials and serves as a stepping-stone for later disclosure of Japanese colonial period materials. Since publication of a report on “Nodong-dong Tomb No. 4 in Gyeongju” in 2000, the museum has continued to publish reports on its materials from the Japanese colonial period, organized by site, and held various exhibitions based on the results of those reports. During the 2010s, the museum also made some materials available online in response to requests for public disclosure of the documents.
The project to organize materials from the Japanese colonial period was integrated in the 2013 project “Public Access to Materials from the Japanese Colonial Period.”

Gold crown from Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb)
Gold belt excavated from Seogam-ri Tomb No. 9, Pyongyang
Silver belt pendants from Gyo-dong Tomb No. 89, Changnyeong

Significance of Making the Materials Public

The most notable feature of the project to make public materials from the Japanese colonial period is that organization of the materials, which was mainly carried out by the National Museum of Korea, was expanded to other national museums in Gyeongju, Buyeo, and Daegu. The Gyeongju National Museum re-excavated Silla royal tombs, including Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb) and Geumnyeongchong (Gold Bell Tomb), and produced new results that revealed errors and distortions in the surveys of the Japanese colonial period and shed light on the structure and construction technology used in Silla tombs. By revealing materials from the ancient tombs in Dalseong in Daegu, the Daegu National Museum has been showing the archaeological aspects of the Daegu area, which was a regional base of the Silla Kingdom. The Gimhae National Museum produced important research results on the exchange between Gaya and Silla and the development of the two kingdoms based on materials from surveys of the ancient tombs in Haman and Changnyeong. Meanwhile, the Buyeo National Museum and the Gongju National Museum are investigating the development and transformation of Baekje capitals during the Ungjin and Sabi periods based on materials on Baekje tombs and temples. Hence, the disclosure of colonial period materials by regional branches of the NMK is an opportunity to produce important academic results related to their respective regions, which can also be utilized in various fields such as exhibitions and education. Meanwhile, the NMK is working on making public materials from North Korean territory, such as the Nangnang (Lelang commandery) and Goguryeo, which are hard to see in South Korea. Although Nangnang is considered an important cultural base related to the growth of Korea’s ancient kingdoms, archaeological investigation is impossible as no related sites remain in South Korea. As such, the Nangnang relics and materials at the NMK are important clues for relieving this academic thirst. Continued research is needed as the NMK’s collection includes various items from China, Central Asia, and other countries.

Washing the pottery excavated from the first coffin of Tomb No. 50 in the Dalseong Site, Daegu
Dalseong archaeological site in Daegu (excavation of Tomb No. 51 in 1923)

Future Direction and Challenges

This year marks the tenth year since the start of the project to make public the museum’s materials from the Japanese colonial period. Up until now, priority has been placed on organizing and publishing materials owned by the museum. Currently, most documents and gelatin dry plates have been made available online for use by anyone at any time. In addition, the museum has continued to reinvestigate historical sites to put in order the relics, records made at the time of initial survey, and photographs, based on which 41 reports have been published so far. Intensive research and publishing of materials over the past 10 years has to some extent resolved basic curiosity about Japanese colonial period materials. The next step is to focus more on utilization of the materials. The newly organized data on each relic and historical site must be gathered for multidisciplinary interpretation and study. However, there are still limitations to investigating materials disconnected from their original excavation situation and context. To solve this problem, research should be expanded to cover not only the collections of the NMK but all materials produced during the colonial period, and research methods should also be further diversified. It is our hope that the next 10 years will prove to be even more fruitful than the past 10 years.

Excavation of a patterned brick from the Oe-ri site, Buyeo
Overall view of the tumuli group in Gyo-dong, Changnyeong