Challenges for establishing a code of ethics in Korea: Dilemmas of a late runner

Sujeong Lee


Formalized conservation ethics have been absent in Korea for the last sixty years since modern concepts of conservation emerged in Korea. Korea’s long history in the 20th century of experiencing the Japanese colonial period (1910 – 1945) and the Korean War (1950 – 1953) has not allowed conservators to concentrate on the matters of philosophical reasoning – of why and how they preserve heritage – but demanded the reconstruction of destroyed monuments and damaged objects so as to recover national identity. Such approaches have encouraged conservators to focus on the development of conservation techniques and scientific analysis of materials, leaving conservation principles and ethical guidelines hardly explored and developed. Conservation treatment has been understood as a static and mechanical practice to follow a certain set of internationally well-known techniques rather than as a flexible social process to necessitate logical thinking and rational decision-making.

Establishing a code of ethics in Korea, as a guiding post for conservators to take a logical process for rational decision-making, has never been considered until a few pioneers stressed the importance of introducing a code of ethics to the field over the last several years through formal and informal talks (Yonghan Kim, pers. comm. December 3, 2009; Pilseung Yang, pers. comm. April 8, 2010; Yang 2011). In 2010, their input encouraged the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage (NRICH) of Korea to provide a small government-given budget to initiate preliminary research into examining various sets of codes of ethics and professional guidelines by various institutes such as American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM), European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers’ Organisations (ECCO), and etc. Two volumes of the report on the research outcome were published with the translated code of ethics of various institutes and distributed to conservators and libraries in 2011 (NRICH 2011). The three-year project will be completed with the announcement of Korean Conservation Code of Ethics at the end of 2012.

During the first meeting of a research advisory committee composed of professors, and conservators from museum and private companies two challenging problems were addressed: 1. The lack of recognition among conservators and policy makers about the significance of establishing conservation ethics; and 2. The concern of conservators who understand a code of ethics to be a legal enforcement to restrain their practice. Even NRICH staff had questioned the need for a code of ethics. In order to tackle these deep-rooted problems, NRICH has organized several seminars for museums, and their own NRICH staff. It has also organised an international symposium with well-known speakers from the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM), European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers’ Organisations (ECCO), Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and Victoria and Albert (V & A) Museum, to attract public attention as well. The conference aimed to gather advice to set out a possible frame for a code of ethics to fit a Korean context.

This paper examines the problems and challenges in persuading and educating Korean conservators to understand what a code of ethics is, and why they need one in the course of their practice. It also explores the reasons why Korea was somewhat belated in setting out conservation ethics given her historical and social context. In addition, the paper introduces how NRICH has been tackling the challenges it came across during the 2010 preliminary research, such as a lack of legal recognition of the conservation profession, and problems related to the training and assessment criteria for professional competence. In delivering this paper at the AIC annual meeting, it was hoped that the paper would invite useful advice and allow others to share their experiences which could enlighten the NRICH process of conducting subsequent research. The ultimate goal of NRICH’s efforts was to introduce a draft of the code of ethics in 2011 and provide professional guidelines in 2012.

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