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Museum Mondays: Celadon-style Korean pottery featured in new exhibit

April 29, 2012

“Gentlemen: I wish to call your attention to a small collection of antique Korean pottery which has come into my possession and which I am desirous of disposing of,” wrote William Gurley in a letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1911.

This collection of “antique Korean pottery” included 84 pieces of celadon ware, a style of ceramic that was extremely popular on the peninsula between 918 and 1392, during the Koryo Dynasty. Celadon produced by Korean potters was famed for its beautiful turquoise color, inlay work, and overall craftsmanship. In 1910, when Korea was annexed by Japan, pieces of celadon ware were removed from a tomb outside of the Koryo capitol of Kaesong, in present-day North Korea, and split into several shipments, one of which was purchased by William Gurley.

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Gurley was the Illinois state geologist from 1893 to 1897, and an amateur collector of geological and paleontological specimens. Although he purchased the celadon pieces, because they had been removed from a tomb and brought overseas, he believed the pottery might be cursed and tried to sell the collection to other museums, including the Met. Gurley was unsuccessful and, after his death, his wife, Katherine, donated the celadon along with hundreds of other pieces—including the famed Wright Museum snuff bottles—to Beloit College in honor of Dr. Carey Croneis’s inauguration as Beloit College president in 1944. Gurley and Croneis had been colleagues and friends while working in the Geology department of the University of Chicago. The celadon pieces were incorporated into the collections at the Wright Museum of Art.

The beauty of Koryo celadon pottery continues to inspire scholars, writers, and artists the world over. In 2001, a Korean-American author named Linda Sue Park published a children’s novel called A Single Shard. This story chronicles the life of a Tree-ear, a Korean orphan living in a coastal potters’ village during the Koryo dynasty, and his efforts to learn how to create his own beautiful pieces of celadon. The story won the Newbery Medal for that year, and inspired interest in the pottery style in a new generation.

A new exhibit on the Gurley celadon called “The Secret Color,” curated by Beloit College student Julia Friberg’12, opens in the Logan Museum of Anthropology on Thursday, May 3, at 2 p.m., as part of the museum’s “Loganpalooza” celebration of student achievements.