November 2015—It all began with a passion for Korean cultural heritage, and the Korean Fighter Kite, the Bang’Pae Yon, in particular, by a determined group of enthusiasts, the Korean Kite Fliers Society.
As Jin-Woo Nam (Peter Nam) explained it, the path to the Penn Museum was a bit circuitous: “It was while we were searching for information of our older heritage that my collaborators and I stumbled upon a reference to the fighter kites at the Penn Museum. A serendipitous chain of events started with the discovery of an article of the 1893 Columbia Exhibition in the March 10, 1894 Scientific American, a copy of which was immediately purchased by Mr. Hyun-Tack Woo (fellow society member). With the information in the article and the help of a Canadian collaborator, Mr. R. Pochubay, we were able to find and trace a reference in Korean Games with Notes on the Corresponding Games of China and Japan by Stewart Culin, 1895, to your online collections database.”
While fighter kites have a long and proud tradition in Korea, information and examples of older kites are scarce to non-existent in the country, due in large part to the mid-20th century wars that wracked and eventually split the country into two.
So when Peter Nam and his compatriots first learned of the existence of such old fighter kites in the Museum’s collection, they were thrilled—and wanted to learn everything they could about them. Peter and Stephen Lang, the Museum’s Asian Section Keeper, began a correspondence. With the Museum’s online database, and some additional research on Stephen’s part, they learned together across the miles. At one point Peter helped Stephen to locate a “lost” kite reel, which had been misidentified in the collection.
The Museum houses six late 19th century Korean fighter kites. The two largest ones, and the large “lost” kite reel, were collected by then-curator Stewart Culin at the 1893 Columbian exhibition, Korea’s first participation in an international event. The other four kites, from roughly the same period, were donated to the Museum by Dr. E.B. Landis.
On Wednesday, November 11, Peter Nam arrived at the Penn Museum with two fellow members of the Korean Kite Fliers Society—Hyun-Taek Woo and Hae-Myoung Hong—as well as Moon-Hyun Lee, Curator of the National Folk Museum of Korea, to see the kites and related archival materials for themselves.
Stephen was ready for them in the Collections Classroom of the Mainwaring Collections Storage and Study Wing, where he had carefully laid out the kites, the kite reel, and several copies of the Stewart Culin game book. Looking through the glass windows into the room, the guests stopped still and starred, visably moved: a long wish, to see these kites in person, coming true.
On Friday, at 1 pm, the Kite Flyers offered a special treat—an impromptu demonstration of fighting kites—at the Ace Adams Field in Penn Park. As a very special thank you to the Museum, the representatives of the Kite Flyers Society presented the Museum with some contemporary kites, crafted with care, and tradition, by the members of the society in Korea.