Lost Korea as Cool As A Lost Van Gogh

p-1.txtI told the lovely Dr. Carla Trentelman that one of the biggest discoveries I’m making while digging through Union Station’s archives is how easy it is for stuff to get lost even in a museum.

“I really understand how a long lost work by Van Gogh or Michelangelo or Titian can turn up sitting on a museum shelf,” I told her. “It’s right there all the time but nobody knows it.”

We’ve all seen the “Raiders of the Lost Arc” film where the Arc of the Covenant gets buried in an anonymous government warehouse. On a smaller scale, that is what is happening in every museum in the world. At least, every museum that doesn’t have a world-class anal retentive indexing system installed. Stuff gets misfiled, or not indexed in sufficient detail. People die or retire and new filing systems are put into place that skip stuff. Nobody has time to really look, closely, at everything on every shelf.

Union Station’s archive is pretty small — rows of shelves jammed into a room the size of a small living room. One guy, Lee Witten, has done his best to organize and catalog things, but he’s a volunteer like everyone else here and hasn’t got time for the sort of detail that would reveal that lost VanGogh, so to speak.

I mean, he’d spot a real VanGogh, obviously, especially if it were among the thousands of feet of super-8 movie film of trains he’s spent the last several months going through, but a propaganda leaflet from the Korean War?

He didn’t know it was here.

I’m trying to learn the collection here. Lee’s indexing is vast, with thousand of entries in our database, but that would rot my brain to go through one by one.

So I’m just pulling boxes off the shelf at random to see what’s there.

Last week it was a collection of old valentines from Ruth Myers Schrider. I mentioned in that blog (click) that there was also some stuff from Korea, and this week I looked at that.


Tom Myers was Ruth’s brother perhaps?  He spent some time as a civilian working for the American military occupation force in Korea beginning in 1947. Korea was divided between north and south after WWII ended, the US, Japan and others countries still had armed forces there while the politics of deciding how the country would be governed got sorted out. That sorting led to the Korean War.

What a trove of stuff Myers left.

In a way it’s cool because it’s so ordinary: There are books of a “Getting to Know Korea” nature given to soldiers serving there so they would know how to behave in a strange culture.

“Koreans will not bear any assumption of superiority on the art of any men on grounds of race, creed or color,” one book says. “They themselves are without any of these prejudices on any of these counts.

Avoid the women, it says. “The limitations imposed by the length of duty tour in Korea precludes most Americans becoming sufficient familiar with the social customs” to avoid committing a major breach of etiquette.

In fact, “sexual relations, regardless of how inspired, other than through the lowest form of prostitutes, is deemed by Koreans to be classed as an act of rape,” and will get both man and woman in serious trouble.

There’s fun items of every day life: A bar list from the Dai Iti Hotel in Tokyo which served drinks for 20 cents or so, collections of post cards showing typical Korean life and culture, a menu from the American-run hotel of some sort for Thanksgiving showing a typical turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

Interesting, the menu claims it is the “famous Cho-Kwang Hotel on Skidrow Alley” in Seoul.

Skidrow Alley? One smells one’s chain being jerked, especially since the “hotel” staff are all US military personnel.

Lots of pictures, of course. Some scraps of Korean money. The bar list has some sort of crude map drawn on it.

All very mundane, but that’s the point. Mundane items of daily life are precisely what don’t, normally, get saved over the ages. These show slices of life of a Korean before a terrible war tore through that peninsula in the early 1950s.