The Door of the Past Opens, Transcending Time and Space
The Door of the Past Opens, Transcending Time and Space
  • Kim Park Yeonhoo
  • 승인 2024.04.01 10:00
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Over time, the things that people created in the past are regarded as unique assets. This not only allows people to experience ancient nostalgia, but also serves as the key to understanding the present and re-examining the past across time. Exploring history and culture, there are some people who discover unique assets lying in the dust, revive the breath of art, and open the door to the past. This SMT reporter met Seo Joo-young, a curator who is working as a bridge between ancient and modern time.


Before we start the interview, please introduce yourself to Sookmyungians.

Hello, my name is Seo Joo-young, and I graduated from Sookmyung Women's University (SMWU) in 1993 with a degree in Korean History. I worked as a curator at the Seoul Museum of History for 15 years, and I have been working as a senior curator at the Buk-Seoul Museum of Art for 11 years. In my current role, I am in charge of overseeing the exhibitions, education, and promotion, and I am responsible for managing the work of the curators.



What is the difference between a curator and a senior curator?

In the official curator system, there are two classes: curator and senior curator. In the civil service system, there are levels 1 to 9, with level 1 being the highest position. Of these, a curator is regarded as equivalent to level 6. A senior curator should be regarded as a higher level than that of a curator and at least level 5 of a general public official. Since they are equivalent to level 1 to level 5, they can take on multiple positions according to the institution's rank and practice. In the case of a senior curator, most are equivalent to level 5, and there is up to level 3 in the case of central institutions.


After graduating from SMWU's Department of Korean History, you have been following the path of a curator. We wonder what made you choose this path.

When I was a student, I worked as a scholar at the museum of SMWU. At this time, it was fun to infer the appearance of past people through relics, and it was especially good to talk with things from the past. This experience made me think that I would be happy doing this work in the future, so I chose the path of a curator. Also, I received practical advice and career counseling from Bae Jeong-ryong, a curator who was in charge of the museum of SMWU at the time.


Since your time at SMWU, we think that you've been active in fields related to your major, Korean History. Was there any memorable experience for you from this time?

As I was a Korean History student, it was most memorable when I traveled around Korea to explore each semester. At that time, I was in charge of overseeing excursions for my department's Student Association. So, I did exploration-related work, such as planning the schedules, making related data books, and booking accommodation, restaurants, and buses. When I was in a lower grade, I took trips that had been planned by my seniors, and then in my senior years, I conducted it myself. Going to one province each semester, I was able to travel over almost all of Korea in four years. In addition, through my department, I was assigned to a museum where I learned about the job of a curator, and I was able to make specific preparations to become one. Also, the experience of research while traveling was helpful when studying art history and my master's degree, and later on when I was in charge of research as a curator.


Up until you became a curator, the path might not have been so smooth. If you had any difficulties, what were they?

First of all, it takes a long time to meet the qualifications to get a job as a curator. As with other jobs, you have to graduate with a master's degree because it is a research profession, and even if you pass the written test, you should have experience working as a researcher or coordinator in a museum or art museum to pass the interview. This has not been easy because it takes a long time. In addition, one of the difficult factors is that national and public institutions do not have a high turnover every year, so there are not many opportunities to take the test. Successful applicants are mainly assigned to exhibition, education, and research, and the routine is not like other jobs because new tasks arise every year as you receive new assignments and implement the results.


You have 15 years of experience as a curator at the Seoul Museum of History. Do you have any memorable experiences or work that you did there?

One of the most memorable was an exhibition called "ANCIENT LETTERS HUGGED by ROCK." We searched for old rock writing carved in scenic places such as mountains and valleys in Seoul, made 'tak-bon,' which is the practice of printing letters or symbols carved in gold stones or other objects on paper, or copies of them, and put together an exhibition from the results. It was not an easy task to spend a whole day in the blazing sun with researchers, searching for inscriptions in various parts of Seoul, and making copies of the carved inscriptions. The process was arduous, but the pride of having the results documented in an exhibition and book was a priceless experience. 'Dong-cheon' is a word that usually refers to a place with a scenic view that is good enough for fresh water, and our ancestors used to carve 'dong-cheon' on rocks in scenic spots. I thought it had disappeared with the development of Seoul, but I was glad to see that it still exists all over the city, including in Cheongun-dong, Buam-dong, Samcheong-dong, and Dobongsan Valley.



You have achieved much in your career as a curator by overcoming the difficult process. In your opinion, what is the attraction of the job of a curator?

The charm of being a curator is that the work I have researched and exhibited is archived and remains as cultural content. Another advantage of this job is that there are constantly new challenges. However, there are advantages and disadvantages, just like there are both sides of a coin. The task of taking on a new job constantly is mentally and physically difficult. New things happen every day, and physical problems arise as many tasks have to be done continuously. Ahead of the opening of an exhibition, I often work overtime. However, I think this is the fate of a curator. If you think of becoming a curator, you must keep this in mind.


On the other hand, whenever you curate new exhibits with different themes each time, it seems that it would be a burden. Do you have any ways of overcoming this feeling?

Curating each new exhibition can indeed be overwhelming, as it's rare that a given exhibition will coincide with or be like what you studied. When that feeling of pressure comes over me, I just go out to talk to people. Instead of sitting around with my head in my hands, I find relevant experts and talk to them, and from there, I connect with another expert and have a conversation with them. Finally, I have a picture in my head and a story to tell from that process.


We wonder if you have had any memorable experiences or tasks at the Buk-Seoul Museum of Art, where you currently work.

Last year was the 10th anniversary of the museum, so we held a symposium to celebrate this event. Since I am the only remaining founding member of the museum, I gave a presentation titled '10 Years of the Museum and the Community.' While preparing for the presentation, I reflected on the various events that had happened during the 10 years of running the museum. Reflecting on the trials and tribulations was a challenging but personally valuable experience.


Finally, please share some words with Sookmyungians who are trying to realize their dream, including potential future curators.

To become a curator, it's important to gain experience by assisting at an institution as a researcher or coordinator. It is not easy to learn how to work as a curator because you are immediately thrown in at the deep end, such as exhibitions and education, so work experience as an assistant is a great way to get your foot in the door. Also, when gaining experience in becoming a curator, I recommend that you work for a long period of time, i.e., more than one or two years. The process takes a long time, so it is important to believe in yourself and be consistent.


- Sookmyung Women's Univ., (B.A.) Department of Korean History (1993)
- Dongguk Univ.,(M.A.) Department of Art History (2005)
- Myongji Univ.,(PhD) Department of Art History (2019)
- Curator, The Seoul Museum of History (2002)
- "The Style and Cultures of the Hanyang People: The Rock Writing Exhibition" (2004)
- "Our Three Kingdoms Story" (2008)
- Senior curator, Buk-Seoul Museum of Art (2013~)

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