New Answers on the Importance of Culture

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Mar 21, 2019
by Lucy Browett and Oscar Tollast
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New Answers on the Importance of Culture

Salzburg Global Fellow Chunnoon Song-e Song reflects on her career changes since attending her first Salzburg Global program Chunnoon Song-e Song speaking at Salzburg Global Seminar

In 2014, Chunnoon Song-e Song arrived at Schloss Leopoldskron looking for answers. She was one of 50 rising talents invited to attend the inaugural program of the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. At the time, she was in charge of cultural and international relations at the National Museum of Korea. Now, almost five years later, she is working for the UNESCO Office for Afghanistan as associate program manager of the National Program for Culture and Creative Economy. A lot has changed.

“When I joined Salzburg Global Seminar (in 2014), it was really an eye-opener for me because it was when I was starting to think whether culture is an essential thing in your life,” said Song, speaking at Salzburg Global’s latest program, What Future for Cultural Heritage? Perceptions, Problematics, and Potential.

Responding to this dilemma was difficult. “But I wanted to find an answer,” said Song. “I wanted to help a project, or I wanted to be a person who deals with an important thing. I wanted to find the enthusiastic point of my work...”

In her role, she was coordinating the Virtual Collection of Asian Masterpieces, an Asia-Europe Museum Network project encouraging cooperation between museums in both continents. She said, “Sitting [at a] desk in Seoul, surrounded by beautiful objects, it was [an] amusing experience, but at the same time it was very painful because I couldn’t find the answer to this question: does cultural heritage actually matter to people?

In Salzburg, she realized there were other practitioners like her asking similar questions and trying to find answers in “the most innovative way.” Song looked within herself and considered whether her interest lay, reminding herself of her love for cultural heritage and cultural projects.

The Asia-Europe Museum Network project involved around 150 museums. The essence of the project was to gather the digital information of these museum’s masterpieces. Song said, “At first I would just continue with the work, but then after coming back from Salzburg Global Seminar, I started thinking, can’t we make use of this in a better way to show that culture actually matters? Then I started thinking that maybe we should include the museums that people actually cannot visit.”

Recognizing many of the participating museums were based in “relatively safer environments,” Song thought, “What’s the point of showing the objects that people can actually see?” She developed an interest in museums based in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

The National Museum of Afghanistan was the first institution Song got into contact with about inventorying and documenting the digital data of the museum’s objects. UNESCO Afghanistan, Song, and the National Museum of Korea collaborated and launched a project in 2015.

Song then asked herself another question: does cultural heritage matter in a country which is experiencing conflict? She accepted a job offer from UNESCO and went to work with people in Afghanistan. Three and a half years later, Song says she has an answer. “Culture actually matters to people – really matters to people… Often some donors, who are not residing in Afghanistan, they would ask, do you really think that culture matters in Afghanistan when children die [from] starving and etc.? I tell them you should have an interview with the Afghan people. They feel depressed without culture.

“They feel they do not get the opportunity to show their pride if they are deprived of culture. I have been working in the most unfortunate places – even in Afghanistan – which is the refugee camps and internally displaced people camps and discovered how much joy that cultural projects can bring to these people and how much of a hope that it actually brings to people. It’s something that’s not tangible. It’s something that you cannot actually see or measure. It’s often neglected by the international society which doesn’t really know the situation, but if you actually go on the field, you immediately see the change.”

To highlight to donors how significant cultural projects are, Song and her colleagues recently organized a participatory theater project to bring host communities and internally displaced people closer together. Song said, “There were interventions by U.N. agencies and in other international agencies to tackle the issue of lack of food and lack of water and lack of education. But there really hasn’t been any attempts to tackle the issue of lack of cultural connection or cultural communication.”

Children received professional acting classes for three months. They performed plays highlighting the narratives of their parents. Song said, “They are the stories of why they had to move to this province, this area, and why they had to leave their own hometown… the reaction that we got from the host community was really immense. The host community [said], ‘We wouldn’t have imagined the difficulties that they had to go through to come and live with us…’ They would feel that these internally displaced people are human beings who they can communicate with now…

“It’s not just bread and water that they need because they are human beings and if they want to live the future, and if they want to build the future for the country and not having people to leave the country and flee the country all the time, what really matters is the cultural project.”

Since working for the UNESCO Office for Afghanistan, Song has been based in Kabul, Bamiyan, and in Seoul. She is mainly in charge of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage and enhancing the diversity of cultural expressions in conflict areas. One project Song is responsible for is the Bamiyan Cultural Centre, which is due to open in May 2020. It will be based near the boundaries of the World Heritage property of the Cultural Landscapes and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley, a site which made headlines following the destruction of the standing Buddhas in 2001.

Song says the community is ready to move on from this incident. She said “We started supporting their festivals, and we started supporting the expression of their cultural diversity and the diversity of their cultural practices… after five years of this implementation, we now have at least one festival every month. It’s really fun to watch that. It’s really enjoyable to watch it because you see that it was triggered by UNESCO, but then it was the role of the community to prolong with that…”


What Future for Cultural Heritage? Perceptions, Problematics, and Potential is the latest program in Salzburg Global’s Culture, Arts and Society series. The program is being held in partnership with the Edward T. Cone Foundation, the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research, Fulbright Greece, and the Korea Foundation. For more information on the program, please click here.