Europe’s 1st Korea-themed museum?
This summer, I was invited aboard a small, but special boat, moored in the prestigious St Katherine’s Dock, central London. The Havengore carried Winston Churchill’s coffin down the Thames for his funeral; today it is chartered by VIPs, including movie stars, politicians and even religious leaders.
The boat’s owner, retired businessmen Chris Ryland, had invited myself and a leading museum designer, Nik Boulting, aboard. What he told us excited me. If you are Korean, it would have excited you, too.
Ryland is a trustee of the ``Soldiers of Gloucester Museum” or SOGM, in southwest England. Men from Gloucester fought in one of the most tragic actions of the Korean War, the Battle of Imjin River, April, 1951.
The museum sits on a historic dock currently being redeveloped into a high-end leisure space with cafes, restaurants and apartments. This summer, two buildings adjacent to SOGM came on the market.
The trustees of the existing SOGM and Gloucester City wished to acquire those buildings ― and convert them into Britain’s Korean War museum.
But is the location right? Should it not be London?
Not necessarily. Gloucester is a historic southwestern city and convenient hub to explore some of Europe’s loveliest countryside ― rolling, wooded hills, dotted with traditional villages. Two hours by train from London, the city already welcomes 360,000 visitors annually to its 11th century cathedral.
The cathedral’s interior was used as a set for the ``Harry Potter” movies, and is home to the ``Korea Cross,” a stone Celtic cross carved by the Gloucester commander during his 18-month solitary confinement in a North Korean POW camp. It lies just a 10-minute walk from the dock ― granting the museum a catchment of 360,000 visitors before it even begins marketing.
So why does the United Kingdom need a Korean War museum?
The United Kingdom supplied the largest contingent in the U.N. Command after the United States. During the three-year conflict, the United Kingdom lost more sons ― 1,109 ― than in the Falklands (255), Iraq (179) and Afghan (382) wars combined. With the Korean War almost completely unknown in the United Kingdom, the museum has many stories to tell.
Britons fought on the ``Pusan Perimeter” in the late summer of 1950 during the free world’s only invasion of a communist state, and led the U.N. attack north of Pyongyang that autumn. After Mao’s ``human wave” surged south, sparking the only-ever battlefield clash of superpowers ― United States vs. China ― they were rearguards during the terrible winter retreat, and played key roles halting the war’s biggest communist offensive in 1951 (when the Gloucestershire Battalion was wiped out). After fighting went static, British and Commonwealth troops held the key sector of the line directly north of Seoul, while, British and Commonwealth navies undertook West Sea operations.
OK, but how does such a museum benefit Korea?
While it would focus on the war, the trustees are determined to include a gallery on today’s South Korea, showcasing the 20th century’s greatest national success story in its economic, political, social and cultural aspects.
The gift shop would sell Korean souvenirs; the café would sell Anglo-Korean dishes.
With Southwest England home to some of the United Kingdom’s finest ingredients, the possibilities are mouthwatering. Bulgogi could be served in fresh breads; on the fermented front, kimchi could be married with Gloucester’s famed cheeses; makgeolli could pour alongside Gloucester ales and ciders.
And with the museum as a resource and research hub, Ryland, an education administrator, believes the Korean War would gain greater prominence in the U.K. national curriculum.
The trustees hope that the museum would become a focal point for the country’s Korean community, and the 20,000-plus Korean students studying in the United Kingdom, and more broadly, it would boost Anglo-Korean amity: While Korean galleries exist in famous museums, this would be (I believe) the first Korea-specific museum in Western Europe.
More? The timing is right. In 2012, the London Olympics will aim global eyes at the United Kingdom, and 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the war’s end.
Last year, speaking at the Blue House, John Slim, a Korean War veteran and member of the House of Lords, made a plea to President Lee Myung-bak and assembled veterans from all contributing nations of the U.N. Command to somehow keep their fellowship alive ― even after veterans die.
Museums, as repositories of relics, are cornerstones of remembrance. South Korea’s National War Memorial stands. Plans are underway for a Korean War museum in the United States. A facility in the United Kingdom would be the third prong to an Asian-American-European triangle commemorating a tragic war, which, though forgotten, has massive contemporary relevance: It continues to overshadow Northeast Asia to this day.
So what is needed, of course, is money. Applications are being made for U.K. National Lottery funding, but that is not a given, and with the British economy stuttering, the amount may be piffling.
Yet the monies required are not that high. Preliminary studies suggest that the project, nose-to-tail, would cost just approximately 4 billion won ― the price of a couple of apartments in Gangnam.
Given this, the trustees welcome interested Korean partners.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. He can be reached at email@example.com.