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Back to square one on return of Goryeo relics from Boston museum

Nov. 8, 2023 - 14:10 By Kim Hae-yeon
Hyemun views the 13th century silver-gilt Lamaistic pagoda-shaped sarira reliquary at the the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Tuesday. (Courtesy of Hyemun)

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, once again agreed to return only the sarira from the 13th century silver-gilt Lamaistic pagoda-shaped sarira reliquary to Korea, according to Hyemun, a former Buddhist monk and the leader of a non-profit civic group dedicated to repatriating cultural heritage, Wednesday.

The decision comes more than a decade after previous talks fell through, after the same offer was made in 2009.

The civic group announced Wednesday that it had met with Julia McCarthy, interim head of collections management, and Christina Yu Yu, chief of curatorial affairs and conservation, to discuss the return of the sarira to Korea on Tuesday. The museum agreed to the request under the condition that the Korean government approves, according to the group.

Hyemun said the return of the sarira is now contingent on the Korean government's final decision, as the museum has committed to proceeding once the two sides reach a consensus.

The meeting lasted approximately an hour, during which Hyemun had the opportunity to view the artifact, which was brought out from the exhibition for the meeting.

"While the reliquary is significant as a cultural heritage, the sarira is a religious and sacred object," Hyemun told The Korea Herald on Wednesday after the meeting with the museum."This (the sarira) is of great importance to the Buddhist community, whether or not the complete piece is more significant as a cultural heritage artifact," he said.

A silver-gilt Lamaistic pagoda-shaped sarira reliquary from the 13th-century Goryeo era, currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Courtesy of Hyemun)

Asked about where the sarira would be kept if returned, Hyemun said he believed it would find its place at Hoeamsa Temple Site in Yangju, Gyeonggi Province.

Meanwhile, the Cultural Heritage Administration voiced its concern about the potential difficulty in securing the return of the reliquary once the sarira is back in Korea.

"The museum offered to return the sarira more than 10 years ago, so the offer is not new to us," a CHA official told The Korea Herald. "However, our stance remains the same. While we do not object to the sarira returning to the temple, we are in the process of working with the museum to reunite both components."

The CHA did not say if it would, once again, turn down the Boston museum's offer.

According to Hyemun, no special requests were made by the CHA to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. While several emails and letters were exchanged, no one from the CHA has visited the museum in person since late April, when South Korean first lady Kim Keon Hee, while visiting the museum, requested that discussions over the artifact's return be reinitiated.

Hyemun reiterated that the matter now rests with the Korean government, which was given the same offer back in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the country's largest Buddhist sect, on Wednesday afternoon said it respects the efforts of the civic group on working to repatriate the items. It also clarified that the group's views and actions are independent of that of the Jogye Order. The religious order also emphasized its ongoing cooperation with the CHA and relevant government agencies in addressing this issue.