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Korea Wrestles for Return of Royal Archive
France holds Joseon cultural property, but Sweden's return of aboriginal totem pole may inspire
Pierre Joo (pierre_joo)     Print Article 
Published 2006-05-04 13:48 (KST)   
What could the Haisla People, an aboriginal tribe from the north coast of what is now called Canada's British Columbia, and the Korean people possibly share in common? Both were victims of European cultural looting, at a time when the Old Continent dominated the world.

It remains unclear in which exact circumstances the nine-meter G'psgolox totem pole, carved in 1872 as a tribute to Haisla victims of a ravaging smallpox epidemic, was taken away from Haisla territory, all the way to Stockholm, Sweden in 1929. The most common tale recounts that someone who was not entitled to, sold the totem pole to an agent of the Swedish Consul, at a time when the Haisla people, devastated by smallpox, were not in a position to protect their cultural assets.

G'psgolox totem pole
Once in Sweden, the Haisla monument was first shown outdoors in Stockholm for six months, and then stored for 40 years. Finally in 1970, the totem pole was exposed in the Swedish National Museum of Ethnography, in a room specifically built to match its size and conservation requirements.

In 1991, after 20 years of a worldwide search for its lost monument, the Haislan community was finally able to locate it and sent a delegation to Stockholm with the objective to claim it back from the Swedish authority. Not an easy task for a delegation with limited diplomatic and economic influence, facing two rationales difficult to argue against: the totem pole was legally sold to the Swedish consul; moreover, anything belonging to the Swedish National Museum's collection is regarded as integral part of the country's cultural legacy.

Yet, 15 years later, the Haisla delegation has achieved its goal, as the totem has left the Swedish coast in March 2006, for Canada. An agreement was reached after the Swedish side admitted they could not find evidence of a Haisla agreement in the 1929 transaction. Furthermore, they acknowledged that at the time, the Haisla people was not in a position to oppose the deal.

On the basis of such conclusions, the Swedish government decided to return the totem pole to the Haisla people as a gift made to them. Such a decision is unprecedented, as the Haisla totem pole is believed to be the first artifact to be voluntarily returned directly to a Canadian aboriginal group from a collection in a country outside of North America.

In exchange of the Swedish decision, the Haisla community has carved a replica of the totem pole for the National Museum of Ethnology of Stockholm, and has agreed to preserve the original one, in spite of Haisla tradition saying the monument should be exposed outdoors and gradually disintegrate under the effects of Mother Nature.

In the end, what started out as Europe's misappropriation of declining native American people's cultural assets, may turn into a new era of cooperation that will definitely benefit both civilizations.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean in 1866, six years before the Haisla totem pole was carved, Admiral Roze, and 170 of his men from the French navy invaded the Ganghwa Island on the Han river. The French expedition seized 297 books of the "Oegyujanggak" royal archive of the Joseon Dynasty, in retaliation of six killed French missionaries. These ancient books now rest in the archives of the French National Library as part of its collection.

The Korean government first asked for a return of the ancient books to the French in 1992. A year later, as he was making an official visit to Korea, then French President Francois Mitterrand, with a lucrative contract in mind for the French bullet train in Korea, was keen to show his country's best intentions. He hinted that his country may return the ancient books to Korea and even offered one sample of the books to his Korean counterpart President Kim Young-sam.

Yet, 13 years later, the ancient books still rest in the French National Library, with no prospect of agreement between France and Korea in the near future.

In fact, a compromise was almost reached in 2001, as both countries had convened to move the ancient books to Korea under a permanent loan granted by France. In exchange, the latter would receive cultural assets of equivalent value from Korea. But due to strong opposition of its public opinion, Korea had to retreat from this agreement.

Although no substantial progress was made since 2001, both sides have shown they were willing to move forward through dialogue: Korea has named an Ambassador dedicated to this issue on Feb. 2006, and France has accepted Korea's request to digitalize the ancient books for its researchers to have a better access to them.

However the issue lies not in the access to these books, but in their ownership, and a solution is yet to be found to reconcile both countries' positions: for Korea, no bargain, loan or swap of any sort can be considered for the return of Korean cultural assets, which find themselves in French soil because they were looted. For France, the ancient books are part of its National Library's collection and thus, considered an inalienable part of French cultural legacy.

A lot is at stake for France, as many of its cultural treasures originate from abroad. They were brought to France for reasons varying from gifts offered by friendly countries, to war trophies taken from once enemy countries. Yielding to Korean demands could be a breach in the principle of inalienability of the French cultural patrimony, and thus send a signal to other potential claimants that could be a serious threat to French cultural assets.

Yet, France cannot ignore the vision of culture in a globalized world it has been promoting as actively as French culture itself at the UNESCO or during WTO talks. France has always been the utmost supporter of international regulations preventing economically dominant civilizations from imposing cultural hegemony. Cultural diversity must be preserved, should it be by imposing restrictions to free trade: a position that Korea shares. France now has an opportunity to apply to itself rules it is wiling to impose to everyone.

Nor can France ignore the reasons why Sweden, when confronted to a similar issue, decided to give up its ownership on one of its national cultural assets: because these assets were taken away illegally from their initial owners who today, are asking them back.

Of course both sides will have to compromise. But France will need to take the biggest step to reach a much awaited settlement of this dispute.

2006 marks the 140th anniversary of the French looting, but it also marks the 120th anniversary of diplomatic ties between France and Korea. Many cultural happenings and exchanges are scheduled to celebrate the event. Yet, what celebration of 120 years of friendship between France and Korea could possibly be better than coming to term with a 140 year-old dispute?

For France, this year is a unique opportunity to settle this dispute and hand back the ancient Joseon books to Korea. Not as a renouncement of pieces of its cultural legacy, but as a deliberate gesture of offering a gift of the highest value and meaning to a 140 year-long friend.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Pierre Joo

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