Fifteen Questions: Soyoung Lee on Harvard Art Museums, Korean and Japanese Ceramics, and Her Lost British Accent

Harvard Art Museums’ head curator Soyoung Lee chatted with Fifteen Minutes about her background, the curatorial process, and museum highlights. “That’s how I see museum work: it’s about translating the things that I’m familiar with for others,” she says. “It’s about the absorption of knowledge and partnerships and context of communications.”


Soyoung Lee is the Landon and Lavinia Clay Chief Curator of the Harvard Art Museums. She specializes in Korean and Japanese ceramics from 1400-1700 as well as cross-cultural exchange in East Asia. Before coming to Harvard, she was a curator of Korean art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 15 years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: Your niche is Korean and Japanese ceramics from 1400 to 1700. I was wondering how you got into this? Was there an “a-ha” moment?

SL: I fell into art history as a college major by accident, or serendipitously, because I honestly didn’t know that art history existed as a field of study. I went into college at Columbia thinking I was going to major in English.

Columbia at the time had very extensive core requirements, one of which was called Art Humanities or Art Hum. I took that in my freshman year, loved it, got into art history, and went to grad school straight after graduating because I didn’t know what else to do and I got into a program.

I knew, going in, I wanted to focus on Korean and Japanese art and the history around the end of the 16th century is really interesting. There was a major invasion by the Japanese warlord of Korea. The ultimate goal was getting to China, but the result was this massive transfer of potters and skilled and unskilled laborers. There’s a whole industry of Japanese ceramics, which to this day, was one of the highlights of Japanese culture, and there’s continuing traditions now — living artists who come from that lineage. So it was a really interesting cultural, historical moment that I wanted to explore.

Anything having to do with ceramic history is actually a lot about archaeology. I wasn’t so much an archaeology major at that time — meaning actually digging into the ground and the whole methodology in that field. So that was a whole thing that I had to learn — fantastic.

The region that I studied was not in Tokyo, but Kyushu, which is the westernmost island.

FM: Were you doing digs? Were you doing onsite work there?

SL: I haven’t done a dig from beginning to end, but part of the dissertation research was to be onsite for some of the digs. I wouldn’t be leading, I’d be inserted into a project that was happening, and the other thing was the post-dig — the material that comes out of excavations, both from production sites, but also consumer sites. And those are often stored not in your big museums, but in the region’s archaeological centers where the sites are located — so just combing through lots of broken pots.

FM: How do you discern all that information from the broken pieces?

SL: I don’t do it alone. All of this involves researchers and archaeologists and students and so forth who write reports on the excavations. There are people who drawing not every, but representative, broken pots to reconstruct what they look like — in essence, data compiling that helps you understand what kinds of things were made or were being used at this palace or in a castle or this residence and so forth.

There’s lots of people who are even better than I am in compiling the data and then we need to make sense of it. What does that mean in the larger scheme of things?

FM: How did your life and career take you to all sorts of different places and then how did you eventually end up here at Harvard?

SL: I’m a daughter of a South Korean diplomat. I was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is where my father was first stationed, and I’ve actually only lived in Korea, pre-adulthood, for a total of about five years. So we moved around. That was the nature of his job, so Sweden, then London.

No ESL, because this was early 80s, back in the dinosaur days. That was a tough experience, because you couldn’t understand anything, you couldn’t speak it, but on the other hand, it was a good test case for the sink or swim model, and so I learned to swim really fast.

That’s where I learned English and retained it and unfortunately lost my British accent when I came to the U.S. So again, the U.S. was with my father’s diplomatic job beginning of high school — L.A., New Jersey, and then I stayed on for college and remained in this country. I’ve been in the U.S. for most of my life. I had still retained South Korean citizenship only because Korea doesn’t recognize dual citizenship.

South Korea was, 80s, 90s, changing so fast, and the contemporary culture at the time was incredibly dynamic, but what my parents retained was old fashioned. So when finally in college, I did a semester in South Korea. My mom would say, ‘Make sure you wear you dress conservatively.’ You get to Seoul and everybody’s dressed more vibrantly and edgy. I think this is a phenomenon for those who leave one’s home country and travel and retain the culture of the moment that they left, when in fact the home culture changes more rapidly.

My dad’s role was partly related to the arts, but I never saw myself becoming either an artist or doing museum work. I wasn’t really conscious of what the museum world was when I was a child, but the way it shaped me is that I’ve always thought of myself as or have been comfortable in the role of a cultural translator. That’s how I see museum work: It’s about translating the things that I’m familiar with for others.

FM: What’s a museum or art experiences from anywhere in the world that you think should be on everyone’s bucket list?

SL: Oh my gosh, that’d be hard to narrow down. This is what everybody’s going to say, but partly because personally and professionally I was associated with the Met for so long, it will always hold such a special place. There are nooks and crannies within the Met that only can be discovered on repeat visits.

I think back to a lot of places that I visited in Japan that have been memorable. There is a museum called — and this is going to sound very old-fashioned — the Museum of Oriental Ceramics. That is their English term, although I know the term oriental is controversial now in this country, but it’s a museum of mostly East Asian ceramics based in Osaka, Japan. It just has such a stellar collection.

And then the London’s V&A is one of those places that’s such a hodgepodge. It’s not your straightforward paintings and sculptures collection. The V&A distinguishes itself in being more about the decorative arts and fashion and so forth. It’s a fun place. The collection is very eclectic.

FM: You’ve had a really rich career, including 15 years spent doing art curation at the Met. What was the process of putting exhibitions together there?

SL: My all-time highlight at the Met would an exhibition on ancient Korea called “Silla” that I organized with a co-curator in the Asian department and with two Korean national museums, one in Seoul and one based in Gyeongju which is the ancient capital and which is where the kingdom of Silla was based. And this was all gold jewelry and gold accoutrements.

We were able to bring over these beautiful, incredible materials, including one almost life-size Buddha statue that was one of the coveted national treasure pieces. Maybe three months, two months before the exhibition when all of the loan agreements had been signed, there was a little hiccup. The government goes through many personnel changes.

The new person who came on decided the statue couldn’t leave because it’s just too valuable and it can’t travel. It did in the end finally come, and so that was memorable, and it really did make a difference in people’s reactions and perceptions and understanding.

FM: What are the logistics of transporting super valuable antique art across the world? That sounds terrifying.

SL: It depends on what type of object.

Sometimes it’s on passenger planes in storage. Sometimes it’s cargo planes and obviously a lot of it involves confidentiality — you don’t announce it to the world. You want these to be delivered. There is a system with couriers, which is when a human being accompanies the art and it can take various forms.

FM: I’d love to hear more about your personal research and the projects you’ve done over the past few decades.

SL: One of the things, more recently, which I see as having enabled my coming here, was an experience called the Center for Curatorial Leadership.

Most curators are academic researchers, and it’s for those who are interested in expanding beyond the curatorial role and thinking more holistically about how an institution operates, your role in it, and potential for leadership.

My career at the Met, I was obviously blissfully happy to be doing the curatorial work, but looking to see if there’s a way to transition to more of a leadership role.

I’m so grateful for that opportunity, but I’m also just so appreciative that Harvard took a chance on me.

The collection — not only is it big, but it’s fascinating and it’s amazing. Just in numbers, there are roughly a quarter million works. For any museum in this country, that’s big.

FM: How does the museum decide what pieces go on display and how long?

SL: I will say when I first arrived at Harvard — and I knew the renovation but I hadn’t seen it post-reopening — when I walked through the galleries, I thought it was just a brilliant job. I think it’s a gorgeous building. There’s so many layers to it.

But knowing the collection, I walked around: ‘Wait, where all the galleries?’ Just felt like there wasn’t enough gallery space for the collection.

In the initial stages, because I’d never worked at an academic museum, I wasn’t fully convinced of giving space to a study center versus gallery. But it’s really part of our DNA, and it’s really what makes us special and I think it’s really what’s in service of students and really the whole community.

FM: There’s a lot of discussion circating about AI and how art production and presentation will evolve with new technologies. How do you think these changes might affect museum spaces?

SL: When the whole idea of having a website, an online presence, getting your collection out there online, then it was like, “What? Then they will never come to the museums!” In fact, it turns out that only helps because when you do anything these days, if you can’t research in advance, online, you’re less likely to go.

Even having technical components in exhibitions or galleries now seems like old news, we’ve been pretty conservative about that. In the 2014 reopening, it was actually a conscious decision not to have iPads, or screens, or any kind of digital component. It’s always a question of what's the goal in the galleries? What's the live experience in the galleries?

FM: Do you have a favorite piece?

SL: We have in our collection what’s known as a moon jar. It’s a large porcelain vase, 18th century Korea. It has a little bit of surface stains, but it’s a very special genre of ceramics.

It’s called a moonjar because it’s big and globular, and it’s reminiscent of the moon. It’s also made in two halves; when you throw it on the wheel you can’t compose it in its entirety because it would collapse. So they took two big bowls and put them together.

One of the favorite spaces in the museum for me is the ancient Buddhist art gallery.

When you come in to the courtyard from Quincy, the left diagonal corner, you go all the way to the back, is this incredible light filled glass-all-around gallery that highlights our ancient Asian — mostly Chinese — Buddhist sculptures — fantastic space.

FM: Does the public seem to have a favorite piece? Is there a room or piece that gets a lot of traffic or comments from visitors?

SL: Van Gogh’s self portrait is the thing that we’re best known for, and more generally the Wertheim Gallery. In that gallery, there’s Picasso, there’s Van Gogh, there’s Gauguin, there’s Cezanne, there’s Renoir — the kind of textbook art history stuff, but it’s really amazing art.

That’s probably the crowd pleaser, but there are many others. We have a part of the museum called the Busch-Reisinger, which is a Germanic collection and there’s a portrait by Beckmann that most visitors know and come to see and is also used in teaching a lot. And then I would also say our collection of European and American works on paper, primarily pre-modern drawings or prints.

FM: For a student who has never visited HAM before, what should they see?

SL: I always tell people to go into the ancient Buddhist gallery, and then I would say to just roam.

The great thing about the space is that it’s manageable. It’s not overwhelming. It’s a gorgeous space. Our galleries are really intimately scaled, and it really means for visitors and for unfamiliar students it’s not intimidating. Of course there are some must-sees and you’ll find those, too, but figure out what interests you, what catches your eye.

— Associate Magazine Editor Mila G. Barry can be reached at