Jackie Kennedy, Joseon Queen
What I love about traveling are the random, hilarious experiences you have after wandering into a museum or tourism center. You set out to drive to a pueblo in New Mexico and something else catches your eye, and the next thing you know, you’re in a grocery store in Los Alamos buying a bottle of wine called La Bomba, adorned with a label depicting a mushroom cloud. For the record, La Bomba tasted like vinegar, but that didn’t stop me from bringing the empty bottle back home and displaying it prominently atop my fridge. The Transportation Security Administration agents didn’t seem to think the wine bottle in my luggage was as funny as I did.
The truly best thing about those experiences is that I get to add a kooky story to my stable of funny tales I relish telling. A personal favorite is my intrepid foray into Asbestos, Quebec. When I spotted the name of the tiny town on a map, I had to take a detour to see what that place was about. I thought it was merely a coincidence that it shared a name with the carcinogenic material. That turned out to be wishful thinking. The entire town existed for a sole industry: asbestos mining. Apparently, the Canadian government sourced a large amount of the asbestos it needed to repair roads from this small town, and then continued to use asbestos for the express purpose of maintaining the townspeople’s livelihoods.
While exploring the small town, I stumbled upon a museum run by the mining company. The very friendly guide didn’t speak much English and most of his explanations were pretty rudimentary. “This is a glove. Asbestos.” “This is a picture of a road. Asbestos.” I was also subjected to a promotional video made in the 1970s about the wonderful uses of asbestos and the company’s safe manufacturing practices. The guide even offered to let me try on a special object: “Fireman’s uniform. Asbestos.” As I had been taking in shallow breaths since entering the town, I declined with regret.
I don’t usually experience Seoul as a tourist. I’ve taken friends around when they visited, but we mostly went to the palaces and major tourist attractions. Even though museums of all sorts, especially art museums, are on the top of my list in any city I visit, whenever I’m in Seoul it doesn’t occur to me that I should museum-hop. However, I recently visited the Korea Furniture Museum with my husband and my father. My dad told me about the beautiful architecture and peaceful grounds, mentioning that he’d gone to an engagement party there. We stopped by, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Korean furniture in the museum’s collection. I was thrilled to see that they had a special exhibition called “Timeless Touch of Craftsmanship.” Oddly, it was in celebration of 91 years of the Gucci archives.
Crowds of young women dressed to the nines stalked in, clutching expensive purses. I flipped through the little pamphlet we were given and was perplexed to find photographs of Gucci bags perched on Joseon-era Korean tables and nestled inside Korean chests. Our guide welcomed us to the museum, and, at each section, talked about the Korean furniture on display and their significance to the Gucci bags. For example, she would extol the intricate detailing on gorgeous bamboo chests beloved by scholars of the Joseon Dynasty, then add, “Gucci’s interest in bamboo is evident in this bag from the 1940s, as the handle is made of bamboo. It was because materials were scarce during wartime.” At another display, the guide said, “As you know, this is the Jackie. This purse was a favorite of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and women all over the world loved it as well.” I don’t remember how the Jackie related to the chest it was sitting inside, but it was clear from the guide’s gaze on me that she expected I knew what she was talking about.
In another area, the guide pointed out a Gucci bag that had a piece of silvery metal outlining the bottom of the bag in the shape of an anchor and compared it to the curved metal handles of the Korean chest it was placed on. I suppose the mere fact that people of different times and nationalities used metal in vastly different works made it relevant to display the two together. In the last gallery, the curator had scattered Gucci luggage, such as a hatbox and a cosmetics case, throughout a display showcasing traditional women’s quarters. This room was certainly the most confusing; was the point that this was a women’s room and that women use cosmetics? None of it made much sense. I appreciate fashion as art, but it was a stretch to link these mass produced bags to one-of-a-kind decorative arts and crafts a century and hemisphere apart. While I did enjoy viewing the masterpieces of Joseon-era craftsmanship, I have a feeling that I’ll be putting this story of the forced mash-up of the Jackie and high-end specimens of Korean vintage furniture in heavy rotation.
Chi-Young Kim is a literary translator based in Los Angeles. She has translated works by Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, and Jo Kyung-ran. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.