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Museums, Missions, Microfilm, and More

by Morgan Wilson

Last summer, I received a Pre-Dissertation Grant from NACBS that funded a one-month archival research trip to London. Much of my time was spent at the British Library and the Royal Asiatic Society, though this trip also facilitated my first-ever visit to a major museum’s institutional archives. Thanks to this grant, I was able to embark on a new phase of turning my dissertation idea into a reality by confirming the existence of a body of primary sources that could support a full-length project. 

My research uses the acquisition of Korean artifacts by London’s largest museums to explore the cultural relationships between Britain and Korea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was a time of change and conflict as new ties were forged between this peninsular kingdom and other parts of the world. This key period included early diplomatic relations between Britain and Korea, the establishment of the Anglican English Church Mission in Korea, and Japan’s annexation of Korea as a colony. Korea was positioned between other regional powers like Russia and China, and becoming more accessible to increasingly global powers like France, the United States, and Britain through treaties, Christian missions, and fledging trading ties.

Despite a sizeable British presence on the peninsula, and widespread interest in other East Asian artifacts and culture in Britain itself, historians of the British Empire have paid little attention to Korea, instead focusing on the political, economic, and cultural relationships with China and Japan. While Korea’s smaller profile suggests a formidable research challenge, it also provides an opportunity to reexamine familiar threads from British historiography within a different context.

Starting in the 1880s, the British Museum and other institutions began acquiring Korean art and artifacts through British travelers to East Asia, introducing Korean culture to many local observers. London museums soon held an array of objects, such as centuries-old coins, ancient earthenware dishes, contemporary painted scrolls, and colorful silk clothing. These were joined by bamboo fans, bronze spoons, and gold jewelry, though it is ceramics that have since become representative of Korean artifact collections.

Missionaries, diplomats, and other travelers sold or donated artifacts from abroad to British museums throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Their ability to acquire these items was facilitated by imperialism in the form of wide-reaching political and commercial networks. Relationships between imperialism and artifact acquisition have been explored to a remarkable degree with regard to Britons in places like India and Egypt that became colonies or protectorates, with missionaries, diplomats, and travel writers as early key players in possessing and analyzing both historical artifacts and contemporary materials produced in the areas where they worked and explored.

My project highlights such figures from Britain who traveled and worked across the Korean peninsula in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Korean context has the potential to challenge assumptions underlying previous studies set in British-dominated territories. The British presence was smaller than in many other places, and was established as the Korean kingdom became the colony of another empire, continuing well into Korea’s colonial period (1910-45). Consequently, missionaries, diplomats, and other British travelers to Korea did not become the forerunners of British imperial control that they have been in other regions. This outcome presents an opportunity to rethink assumptions about the relationship between the British Empire and an array of individuals that have been associated with imperialism within British studies. 

The Pre-Dissertation Grant enabled me to locate a range of valuable sources, but I am currently focusing my research efforts on the English Church Mission’s early activities in Korea, and how the missionaries interacted with Korean people, history, and culture. While this group was primarily concerned with evangelism, it also produced early British scholars of Korea like Bishop Mark Napier Trollope (1862-1930), who led the ECM for two decades and donated Korean books, manuscripts, and intricately drawn maps created in the eighteenth century to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Thanks to years of living in Korea and forming ties to local people, missionaries were well-positioned to acquire items for themselves, and Trollope’s example suggests they may have contributed Korean objects to other major British collections. 

Before my journey to London, I worried that there would not be enough readily available primary material on this group. Fortunately, my fears were largely allayed by the realization that the British Library alone holds dozens of microfilm reels of the Mission’s documents and images from my chosen time period and beyond. Despite knowing of its prevalence in archives around the world, finding these reels brought further excitement since it brought my first-ever experience of working directly with microfilm. Over time, this may turn out to be only a minor milestone in my scholarly pursuits, but I was excited to locate so much material. The Pre-Dissertation Grant not only helped me solidify the groundwork for my dissertation, but also gave me practical research experience that I hope to carry well beyond this project.  

Morgan Wilson is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was awarded the NACBS Pre-Dissertation Grant in 2019.

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