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[Reporter's notebook] 'Stories of Our Presidents': Good intentions, bad execution

June 4, 2023 - 11:28 By Park Ga-young
Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Park Bo-gyoon introduces the items displayed at a special exhibition "Stories of Our Presidents" at the main building of Cheong Wa Dae during a press conference in Seoul, Thursday. (MCST)

A special exhibition commemorating the transformation of the former presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, into a cultural complex commenced on Thursday. Titled "The Stories of Our Presidents," the exhibition seeks to illuminate the lesser-known, humane facets of the individuals who once wielded the country's highest political power. Artifacts used by 12 former presidents at Cheong Wa Dae -- where the country’s history was recorded for 74 years until May 9 last year -- are on display. The exhibition aims to provide an insight into the former presidents' lives beyond politics.

“Regardless of their achievements and mistakes, this exhibition presents the public with a more accessible, intriguing and approachable view of our former presidents. Through the displaying of symbolic items that reflect their individual lifestyles and how it impacted their leadership,” Park Bo-gyoon, the minister of culture, sports and tourism, told reporters during a press conference on Thursday.

Among the exhibited items are Park Chung-hee’s pencil sketch of his pet dog; Roh Tae-woo’s "tungso," a notched, end-blown vertical bamboo flute; Kim Young-sam’s running shoes; Kim Dae-jung’s gardening scissors; Roh Moo-hyun’s patented reading stand; Syngman Rhee’s English typewriter; and more. In addition to these items, the main building exhibits several art works held by Cheong Wa Dae, including “Geumsugangsando (Beautiful Land of Korea),” painted by Kim Shik over the course of 4 months in 1991.

Another exhibition taking place at Chunchugwan, one of the Cheong Wa Dae office buildings that served as the president's press conference room as well as the waiting lounge for correspondents, shows furniture and crockery used in Cheong Wa Dae, providing an intriguing look into the rich past of the former presidential house.

It's undeniable that for an exclusive look at our presidents' lives outside of the bright lights of the political scope, this location is perfect.

However, it is unfortunate that "The Stories of Our Presidents," has been plagued with poor execution and inadequate information for foreign visitors. Photos and items are displayed in Korean without any translation, except for the main board explaining the theme of each section.

What's more, even with explanations in Korean, it was sometimes difficult to understand why certain items had been included in the exhibition.

For instance, in Kim Dae-jung's section with the theme of gardening, five fully handwritten pages of letters are displayed without any explanation, leaving visitors puzzled about their connection to the late president's passion for gardening.

Another intriguing display is the presidential citation awarded by Lee Myung-bak to Dr. Lee Guk-jong, who treated Capt. Seok Hae-gyun after the latter sustained injuries during Operation Dawn of the Gulf of Aden in 2011. This citation is exhibited alongside a tennis racket and two bike helmets. However, the reasoning behind this inclusion remains unanswered.

A pair of running shoes of former President Kim Young-sam is displayed at a special exhibition "Stories of Our Presidents" at the main building of Cheong Wa Dae during a press conference in Seoul, Thursday. (MCST)

Similar questions were raised for a print featuring a Siberian tiger by American artist Andy Warhol, which former US President Donald Trump had gifted to Moon Jae-in. The theme for Moon's exhibition is mountain climbing, and the state gift is not considered personal belongings.

There were also questions over why there was a replica of a pencil sketch by Park Chung-hee of his pet dog, rather than the original. Later, the minister explained the original was not in the right condition for exhibition.

In addition, many reporters wondered why photos used for the exhibitions had such poor resolution, even for presidents from more recent administrations. A staff member of the exhibition told reporters that there were not that many photos that are related to their lifestyles.

Despite the explanation offered by the minister that the exhibition focuses on the lifestyles of the former presidents, many reporters questioned whether the weight of their political histories could be ignored. Reporters seemed to be unpersuaded by the minister's answers.

A soccer ball with former President Chun Doo-hwan's writing is on display at a special exhibition “The Stories of Our Presidents“ on Monday at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul, Thursday. (Yonhap)

For instance, when asked about Chun Doo-hwan, who is criticized for his oppressive rule, particularly during the Gwangju Democratic Uprising, the minister said that “President Chun Doo-hwan was the first ceremonial pitcher in professional football and played a pivotal role in establishing professional baseball in the country. His exhibition section is created with his involvement in sports, highlighting the connection between sports and his life.”

His comments seemed to completely overlook the reality of why sports were being promoted at a time when the country was dealing with a lot of civil unrest and a brutal political regime. Interestingly, Chun's section included a photo of the day after the night curfew was lifted, with an explanation that it was much calmer than expected. It was a reminder that it is difficult to assess the political and personal lives of leaders separately.