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Rebranded heritage agency eyes being ‘relatable’

May 17, 2024 - 17:20 By Choi Si-young
Choi Eung-chon, chief of the Korea Heritage Service, speaks at a symposium at the Westin Josun Seoul on Thursday. (KHS)

The Korea Heritage Service officially marked its new start Friday with the agency managing national heritage reaffirming its commitment to be more “relatable.”

Renaming the agency previously called the Cultural Heritage Administration, approved by the National Assembly last year, represents the largest overhaul in the agency’s history -- a change that warranted hosting an international meeting to mark the moment, according to KHS officials.

“The meeting today is to announce the change and float a global discussion on how all of us can build on that,” Choi Eung-chon, head of the KHS, said at The International Symposium on the K-Heritage System held Thursday at the Westin Josun Seoul, attended by academics and practitioners in the field from around the world.

Breaking with a 62-year-old tradition, the agency will now focus on “national heritage,” an umbrella term that replaces “cultural properties.” National heritage is now categorized in natural, cultural and intangible, categories that UNESCO employs.

The agency’s determination to become relatable and benefit the public is embodied in the name “service,” Choi said. Regulatory hurdles against prioritizing preservation efforts at the expense of development will be cleared, according to him

“I note the noble aims of the reshaped K-heritage system,” said Susan Mclntyre-Tamwoy, vice president of the Asia-Pacific region for the International Council on Monuments and Sites. She praised the agency’s push to render its work “harmonized with people’s lives.”

Mclntyre-Tamwoy called for bigger steps to protect heritage against the fallout from climate change. Cultural heritage creates a social bond that glues its people together, she noted, explaining how a community destroyed by a tsunami, for example, is more likely to rebuild and recover faster when mindful of heritage.

“It is much easier because that community has a sense of who they are and who they want to be again,” Mclntyre-Tamwoy said. Educating the young generation about the role of heritage remains crucial, she added.

Susan Mclntyre-Tamwoy (left), vice president of the Asia-Pacific region for the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and Rodney Harrison, a professor of heritage studies at University College London (KHS)

Rodney Harrison, a professor of heritage studies at University College London, noted that regularly reflecting climate action in the field of heritage studies has been missing.

“I think that there’s a lack of knowledge of the existing frameworks and a general lack of knowledge about what the Paris Agreement says,” Harrison said referring to the global project to curb carbon emissions.

Helping heritage professionals working in museums, galleries and libraries to understand how such frameworks relate to the work they do will be another challenge for the KHS, Harrison added.

“One of the things that I’ve discovered in my work and one of the things that’s driven my work is seeing how different fields of heritage practice have become so siloed,” Harrison said, noting that cross-communication or interagency cooperation in the realm of best practices should be frequent.

He brushed off the notion that practitioners could find a one-size-fits-all approach to heritage management. “There’s going to be quite different approaches to different situations and different forms of heritage.”

Meanwhile, Sung Jong-sang, an expert on natural heritage, pointed out the agency overhaul could potentially revive momentum for exchanges with North Korea.

“What to do about (Korean) heritage is a divisive issue,” he said, weighing together cooperation over natural heritage would be least “politically divisive.”

“Natural monuments are a reaffirmation of Korean identity to both Koreas,” said Song, a professor who teaches traditional, ecological landscape at Seoul National University. Joint heritage management could potentially warm ties between the two countries if they find the right time, Song said.