NRICH: An extensive online resource for Korean cultural heritage

It’s no secret that the South Korean government has invested heavily in digitizing and making available a large amount of the most important premodern literature that still exists today. Robust databases such as the DB of Korean Classics (Han’guk kojŏn chong’hap tibi) allow researchers to query massive quantities of textual data quickly and efficiently. With clearly labeled bibliographic data, images of the original documents, and notations that point scholars to references embedded within the text itself, Korean databases set a gold standard in the realm of digitized East Asian corpora. In a previous post I reviewed the main databases for premodern texts. In this post I’d like to introduce a resource for cultural heritage documentation and research: the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage (NRICH).

Since the 1970s, the NRICH has been tasked with promoting understanding of cultural and natural heritage, identifying and excavating sites (both domestically and internationally), and developing and implementing conservation and preservation techniques. The institute is divided into research specialties and regional branches. For example, there are research divisions for archaeology, artistic heritage, architectural heritage, conservation science, and natural heritage, among others. Regional branches center around historically significant areas such as Kaya (the region around the Nakdong River basin occupied by the Kaya confederacy of statelets around the first half of the first millennium CE), or Chungwon (an area that includes parts of North Ch’ungch’ŏng province and Kangwŏn province and was an important site of early iron production) to provide localized bases for their projects.

English language homepage of NRICH listing the research divisions and regional branches.

Given the wide range of research that is being conducted by the subdivisions of NRICH, it follows that the website is brimming with difficult to find data, images, and field reports for those interested in the visual, material, and cultural history of premodern, and prehistoric, Korea. Though there is an English language homepage, its offerings are quite limited. For those new to Korean Studies, it may be helpful to click through the pages of the regional branches to get a general sense of the importance of those areas to Korean Studies. Of note is the freely available English language Dictionary of Korean Archaeology (2014) that features color images of objects, ancient sites, and excavation drawings from Korea and those related to Korea in Japan, China, and Russia. Though already a few years old, this would be an excellent resource for undergraduates or scholars just getting acquainted with Korean materials. Each entry has further readings in grey at the end, though most of these are in Korean. Still, with over 800 pages of entries on significant sites and terms from all across the peninsula (even in North Korea) and beyond, this digital volume is sure to be helpful for those struggling to find English language sources and teaching materials for Korean topics.

Screenshot of the online version of the Dictionary of Korean Archaeology.

Unsurprisingly the resources available through the Korean language portal are much more extensive.  These include excavation reports (readable online or as a PDF), technical conservation reports, richly illustrated exhibition catalogues (see this post’s header image), videos of 3D renderings of certain cultural heritage objects (see image below), a database of common visual motifs (downloadable as Adobe Illustrator files), and much more. This content is organized under the research divisions and regional branches that produced them. For example, the database of visual motifs is nested under the artistic heritage division as are reports on the Korean artworks held in overseas collections. Some of these publications have English abstracts or are written in languages other than Korean. For example, a joint exhibition catalogue of Xiongnu art is published in Cyrillic script.

An interesting feature of the Korean NRICH portal is the inclusion of a list of cultural heritage in North Korea. These include prehistoric examples like dolmens and tumuli, as well as medieval Buddhist temples, and premodern art objects. Some entries have English explanatory texts and almost all have difficult to find images of the objects and places in question. Further subdivided into thematic lists such as relics from Kaegyŏng (the capital of the Koryŏ dynasty) and Koguryŏ artifacts, and searchable by title, time period, or content, this database is extremely useful for scholars working in the difficult fields of Koguryŏ, Parhae, and Koryŏ studies.

Screenshot of the Kwanŭm temple entry in the North Korean relics section featuring English explanatory text and rare images.

Though the resources on the NRICH website are primarily derived from the work done by the institute’s researchers, there is also a subsection for reports and images produced during the Japanese occupation period (1910-1945). Photographic documentation and excavations conducted by the Japanese are almost always the earliest records of peninsular cultural heritage that we have. Therefore, it is important to present this material alongside the more recent studies to provide context about the changes that have occurred within the past century.

This website has been valuable for me as a source of excavation reports, limited edition exhibition catalogues, and high-resolution images. For those who can’t read Korean, navigating the website with the Google translate extension on Chrome is workable and can lead you to great images, and English or non-Korean language resources. Using the links I’ve provided above, I hope that the NRICH website and Dictionary of Korean Archaeology will prove useful either as a first step in research or as a resource for students in the undergraduate classroom.

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