|Seongnagwon at its opening on April 23. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
CHA and owner's account of Seongnagwon's history uncorroborated, scholar says
By Lee Suh-yoon
The temporary opening of Seongnagwon, a small private garden in a residential area in Seongbuk-dong, northern Seoul, generated a media frenzy last month.
Owned by the nearby Korea Furniture Museum, the garden received extensive coverage from all major media outlets. The Korea Times also covered the opening press tour on April 23.
The garden, designated a "scenic site" by the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA), was introduced with exaggerated descriptions like "disclosed to public after 200 years" and "one of three greatest traditional gardens". A scenic site is defined as "a place of natural beauty with great historic, artistic or scenic value, which features distinctive uniqueness and rarity originated from its formation processes," according to the CHA website.
But the generous media attention is now unraveling into scrutiny, following a scholar's claims that the garden's history provided by the CHA is uncorroborated and possibly false. The CHA, it seems, simply took for granted the owners' claims that the garden was owned previously by Shim Sang-eung, a cabinet minister of the 1392-1910 Joseon Kingdom whom the owners at Korea Furniture Museum claim is their ancestor, when the organization first registered the garden as a cultural heritage site in 1992. The site was later demoted to the label of scenic site in 2007 after a re-evaluation. However, the same historic claims remained on official CHA documents on the garden given to the media and the public.
"In all major sources from the era, he (Shim) is nowhere to be found," said Suk Ji-hoon, a Ph.D. student in Asian History at the University of Michigan who first pointed out the error. "The only thing you can find about him is there was a person named Shim Sang-eung, who was a petty official in the 1890s."
In a phone interview last week, The Korea Furniture Museum admitted its error.
"We now realize (Shim Sang-eung) was not the minister of personnel and we will probably have to correct the mistake," said Park Joong-sun, a spokesman for the museum.
The embellishment of family history, as Suk calls it, is not the only problem. The dates and duration for when the garden was used as a royal villa for Emperor Gojong's fifth son, Yi Gang (1877-1955) are largely unclear, so the CHA descriptions conveniently sum it up at "35 years during the late Joseon Kingdom." The villa can no longer be found at the site, which underwent drastic changes as it passed hands, most notably between the mid-1950s and early 1960s when the garden was remodeled into a "modern tourist theme park" intended for vacationing U.N. soldiers, according to a Dong-A Ilbo newspaper clipping from 1961.
|A Dong-A Ilbo newspaper clipping from June 2, 1961, introducing Seongnagwon as a "modern tourist theme park." Captured from National Institute of Korean History online DB|
In an article posted online earlier this month, Suk also alleged the decision of the Shim family ― owners of the Korea Furniture Museum ― may be linked to their recent financial troubles. The museum buildings and Seongnagwon have been put up for auction multiple times under the mediation of the court since 2015 due to the family's debts. Parts of the garden, a hanok building across the main pavilion and chunks of wooded areas stretching behind the main garden are now owned by different people.
"They wanted to make this place much more significant than it actually is," Suk alleged in an interview last week.
The Korea Furniture Museum rebutted the allegations, saying drawing attention to the garden's heritage value was not necessarily a financially-savvy decision.
"Embellishing the historic value of the garden does not increase its real estate value. Because it's a cultural heritage site, revealing its cultural and historic value is revealing it has to be preserved as it is, keeping away investors who have other motives," museum spokesman Park said over the phone.
The CHA, the body that was supposed to scan and keep proper tabs on prospective or designated historic heritage sites, also admitted its lack of historical research and evidence-checking. It said, however, that it had no plans to strip the garden of its scenic site designation.
"We have currently contracted out relevant academic studies and will make an overall examination of the historic evidence and records that were lacking at the time of the designation (of Seongnagwon as a cultural heritage site)," Kim Joong-tae, a CHA official, told The Korea Times. "But still, the garden shows the cultural lifestyle of people in the late Joseon Kingdom who built houses near mountains and streams ― that in itself has value."
Still, the garden's aesthetic value as a scenic site is contestable.
"The whole notion of scenic site as a designation, it must have both natural aesthetics and a certain degree of historicity, and Seongnagwon does not fit into any of that," Suk said. "Bogil Island, another scenic site, is immaculately preserved. Even though many of the buildings on the island are reconstructions from the 1970s, it's well-put-together and there are tons of historical sources and archeological findings that contest their existence. Compared to it, Seongnagwon does not even come close."