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The Art of Diplomacy: Robert van Gulik’s Collection and his Diplomatic Career

Calligraphy in seal script by O Se-chang (1864-1953), ink on paper, Korea, 1946, Collection National Museum van World Cultures, RV-5265-10.

Having received his doctorate at the young age of 24, Robert van Gulik made the curious decision to pursue a diplomatic career rather than continuing in the academy. This was the start of a long and successful career in the Dutch diplomatic service, culminating in a post as ambassador to Japan. However, the business of diplomacy did not keep Van Gulik away from other interests. He continued to conduct research, wrote novels, practised calligraphy, and collected art; fashioning himself after the ideal of a “scholar-official”.

Van Gulik’s art collection is usually discussed in relation to his work in the facet of a scholar. Instead, this talk will place the spotlight on some of the works in his collection from the latter side of the “scholar-official” identity. After all, there was a large degree of crossover between his collection and his daily work as a diplomat. For example, several works in his collection were gifted by diplomatic contacts or pertain to diplomatic work. Making use of archival records from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and works from his collection, this talk will consider how Van Gulik’s scholarly activities informed his diplomatic work and vice versa. One particular episode I will discuss is a trip that Van Gulik made to Korea. Van Gulik travelled to Korea in 1949, purportedly for a private holiday with the aim of studying Korean culture and history, but was in fact undertaking a covert diplomatic mission.

Karwin Cheung is Assistant Curator for East and Central Asia at National Museums Scotland. Prior to taking up this post in 2019, he was curatorial assistant for East Asia at the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands, where he worked with objects from the former Van Gulik collection. Karwin holds an MA in Asian studies from the University of Leiden.