School of Arts & College of Humanities

The Korean art collecting activities of British diplomats, businessmen and missionaries, 1880-1930 – A provenance research project based on UK collections

This 12-month provenance research project was funded by the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation  (a South Korean government-funded institute overseen by Cultural Administration Heritage and the Ministry of Culture).

The project was designed to further the understanding of early collecting and consumption of Korean cultural objects in the UK by investigating objects that entered British museum collections between the 1880s and 1930s. The research was focused on eleven influential diplomats, businessmen and missionaries who had intimate connections to and experience in Korea and who donated, sold and/or bequeathed more than four-hundred objects to British institutions. 

The project entailed on-site research of early Korean collections spread across a total of nine UK institutions. The project brought to light the types of objects that were acquired by individuals whose collecting practices tended to be driven by other factors than connoisseurly interests. By incorporating a wide range of objects and institutions that fall within and outside the domain of art, the project also provided important insight into how Korea was understood by diplomats, businessmen and missionaries and it offered fresh understandings of how institutional approaches to the objects furthered contemporary perceptions of Korea.

As part of the project, a workshop was hosted in November 2023 where curators, librarians, and researchers from the Bodleian Library, Cambridge University Library, British Library, British Museum, National Museums Scotland, Kew, Royal Botanic Gardens, Brighton University, and SOAS, University of London were invited to talk about the formation and management of their Korean collections.