The widespread outbreak of novel coronavirus infections (COVID-19) has brought rapid changes on various systems and ways of life across the world, creating an entirely new global landscape. Korea’s activities to safeguard ICH were no exception. Amidst a situation that forced the cancelation of a wide range of ICH-related events and educational programs and considerations to find new safeguarding methods, the transition to non-face-to-face methods rather broadened the scope for safeguarding and promoting intangible heritage.
Expansion of activities through non-face-to-face methods
The most pronounced change among intangible heritage institutions, which currently operate under state-led management, is the emergence of new dynamics through the online transition of intangible heritage education and safeguarding activities, which had previously taken place through face-to-face methods. Since the end of April, the National Intangible Heritage Center has conducted a training course for new intangible heritage practitioners in the form of online classes, whereas they had previously been conducted in offline classes. The practitioner training videos across a total of fifteen subjects are comprised of four twenty-five-minute videos, and new practitioners are able to communicate with instructors by submitting their impressions and questions after watching all of the educational videos. The official in charge of the project, Myeong-hyeon Kim at the National Intangible Heritage Center, remarked, “Online education has the advantage of revising and editing, which allows us to deliver more refined content to practitioners.” As part of the educational curriculum, the National Intangible Heritage Center produced a video program to hold a forum with ICH masters that can be viewed by practitioners as well as the general public. Furthermore, in July, the National Intangible Heritage Center opened an online exhibition for ICH on its website (www.nihc. go.kr), where visitors can listen to an audio exhibition guide.
The National Gugak Center, which attracted many urban residents to visit, also canceled most of its gugak performances due to the spread of COVID-19. Instead, it began to upload one performance to its YouTube channel in the morning on a daily basis and staged major performances as live streams without an audience. This transition is interpreted to have broadened the viewership for the genre, as paid performances became open to the public free of charge. In addition, it also began to offer a VR performance service to maximize the sensation of watching performers play at the venue in real life. Through close-proximity first-person recording, the VR service allows the audience to view the surrounding scenery, performers’ facial expressions, and dancers’ delicate movements from all directions in a 360-degree panorama. The Public Communications Office at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism launched its “Culture at Home” campaign in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, introducing the “Gugak Archive” (archive.gugak.go.kr) that presents over 380,000 items of gugak-related records and exhibitions, and the “e-Gugak Academy” (academy.gugak.go.kr) as a way to learn gugak-related subjects such as traditional Korean musical instruments and pansori through online classes.
Turning crisis into opportunity
Civil society groups such as schools and intangible heritage conservation societies are also making efforts to seize new opportunities from the COVID-19 crisis. Heyja Kim, A choreographer at the National Gugak Centre Dance Theatre and an adjunct professor at the School of Korean Traditional Arts, Korea National University of Arts explained that the response to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 at the beginning of this year began with class cancelations, subsequently transitioning into e-mail and mobile messenger classes, eventually taking place through Zoom video classes. Professor Kim records herself at home using her laptop computer and connects the screen of her students to the TV to conduct classes. Assignments are also submitted in the form of videos of practice sessions recorded by the students themselves, which are then viewed by Professor Kim and given individual feedback. Professor Kim remarked, “It is inconvenient that I can’t physically correct the students in person, but on the other hand, students benefit from the ability for me to closely watch the footage that they recorded to provide in-depth feedback.” In addition, Professor Kim stated that the situation provided a useful opportunity for students to learn by viewing their own movements on video.
Eun-seon Cha, practitioner of National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 61, Eunyul Talchum, has taught talchum at elementary and middle schools across the Incheon and Gimpo areas. Cha stated that she has been conducting both online and in-person classes at schools in response to COVID-19. Since it is currently difficult to hold conventional Eunyul Talchum practice sessions where many participants perform together and come into contact, the in-person classes have consisted of talchum-related content that has been edited and condensed. “We are instructing each individual to dance their own talchum using their own props and costumes,” explained Cha.
The traditional Korean Buddhist event of Deung Hoe Yeon, which is currently awaiting the decision on its inscription on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December, was forced to be canceled for the first time in forty years due to COVID-19. This marks the first time that Yeon Deung Hoe, which is designated as National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 122, was directly canceled by the Buddhist community. The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism also postponed Buddha’s Birthday, a major religious cultural event in Korea, by a month. Instead, the Buddhist community dedicated their prayers for the nation’s recovery and healing from COVID-19 and contributed their efforts toward helping the public to overcome this crisis.
Entering the second half of 2020, some institutions have begun to cautiously resume performances and events under meticulous infection prevention measures. The conservation society for Goseong Nongyo, Important Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 84-1, held the Korean Traditional Music Festival on 1 August at a Goseong Nongyo performance venue in Gyeongsangnam Province. The event began with the ceremonial lighting of incense by monks and the ritual performance of pungmul pangut, followed by a Goseong Nongyo performance incorporating barley threshing and watermill sounds into the traditional farmers’ songs known as nongyo, and invitational performances such as Hongseong Gyeolseong Nongyo and
Suyeong Nongcheong Nori. To prevent COVID-19 infections, the itinerary excluded Goseong Nongyo performances by elementary school students, and the attendance quota was limited to a hundred people. The conservation society for Yangju Sonori Gut in Yangju, Gyeonggi Province also held its thirty-seventh regular performance of Yangju Sonori Gut, titled the “Fragrance of Traditional Culture,” in August at Yangju Byeolsandae Nori Madang. The regular event consisted of the performance of Yangju Sonori Gut in its original form as a ritual to wish for the prosperity of families and rich harvests, in addition to taekwondo demonstrations, yeot (taffy) scissor percussion performances, gugak ensemble performances, prayers for good fortune, pangut performances, and Jwasuyeong Eobang Nori, a genre of traditional fishermen’s songs. Audience members attended the performances in adherence to COVID-19 prevention measures, such as body temperature checks, hand sanitization and face mask wearing. The city of Jinju in Gyeongsangnam Province announced that it reopened “Saturday Regular Concerts for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Jinju,” which marks its thirteenth event this year, in August. The Saturday Regular Concerts are held at Chokseokru every Saturday from August to October, showcasing performances such as National Intangible Cultural Heritage items Jinju Samcheonpo Nongak, a genre of traditional folk music, and Jinju Geommu, a traditional sword dance, as well as Provincial Intangible Cultural Heritage items Jinju Pogurakmu, a type of play-incorporating dance, Sin Gwan-yong style of Gayageum Sanjo, and Jinju Ogwangdae, a traditional mask dance. A city official stated, “This year’s event was conducted in compliance with measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing.”
Challenges in an ecological and environmental context
Another impact of COVID-19 on ICH safeguarding in Korea is that we were compelled to reflect on the habitats and the environment surrounding us and consider new awareness and safeguarding activities with regard to intangible heritage. UNESCO-ICHCAP, in partnership with the UNESCO Bangkok Office, held four webinars from June to August on the theme of “Safeguarding Intangible Heritage in the COVID-19 Era.” This webinar series focused on various topics
such as the impact of COVID-19 on safeguarding intangible heritage, changes caused by the pandemic on intangible heritage education in universities, and the current status of higher education networks for safeguarding intangible heritage. In particular, the “Survey of Global Intangible Heritage Safeguarding Activities,” which was presented during the first webinar, aptly outlined the way in which various countries around the world are safeguarding and using intangible heritage during the pandemic. This survey also served as a basis to create a global map on the theme of safeguarding intangible heritage (ich.unesco.org/en/living-heritage-experiences-an d-the-COVID-19-pandemic-01123).
The National Intangible Heritage Center chose the theme for this year’s World Forum for Intangible Cultural Heritage, which has been held annually since 2017, as Humankind, Nature, and Intangible Cultural Heritage, as an opportunity to move beyond a human-centric perspective to reflect upon intangible heritage under a new relationship with nature. To delve into the theme of the forum, the National Intangible Heritage Center invited Professor Jae-chun Choe, an expert on ecology and the environment and a chair professor at Ewha Womans University, and held a special lecture in July under the topic of “Ecological Transitions and the Future of Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Post-COVID Era.” In the special lecture, Chair Professor Choe emphasized the importance of coexistence between humankind and other species as a key topic in the post-COVID era. He also discussed the long history of ICH of humanity in relation to nature in a conversation with Jin-gi Cheon, a folk culture scholar and the former director of Jeonju National Museum. The forum is scheduled to be held in September of this year.
With the cancelation of numerous folk ceremonies and events, COVID-19 posed a threat to safeguarding and transmitting ICH. However, we have successfully turned this crisis into an opportunity. We hope that Korea’s experience of safeguarding intangible heritage amidst the global spread of this infectious disease presents a useful frame of reference for other countries.