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Q&A: History Ph.D. student Grace Song Swihart examines visual culture to better understand U.S.-Korea relations

Author: Beth Staples

Grace Song Thumbnail
Grace Song Swihart

This Q&A is part of an ongoing series with Arts and Letters graduate students. Read more Q&As with graduate students and faculty members here.

For history Ph.D. candidate Grace Song Swihart, learning helps her understand life’s complexities. 

She’s used photographs, flags, and other visual sources in her research, teaching, and an internship at Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art to show how cultural representations have impacted foreign relations between the U.S. and Korea, as well as Americans’ understanding of Koreans.

Comprehending the cultural history of the U.S-Korea relationship is necessary to contextualize Korean culture and people, said Swihart, who grew up in Koreatown in Los Angeles then earned a B.A. in history and an M.A. in historical studies at The New School. 

In this interview, she discusses her research and how it has helped her better understand her own family and begin the process of healing after anti-Asian violence in America.

What is your dissertation about?

The working title is Visualizing U.S.-Korea Relations, 1871–1953. I start with the Battle of Ganghwa and end with the Korean War 1950–53 and use visual sources — including the evolution of the Korean flag, the Taegukgi — to show how cultural representations affected foreign policy decisions and relations. 

While some know the Korean War as the Forgotten War, the Battle of Ganghwa was the first conflict between the U.S. and Korea in the late 19th century — a pivotal moment when the U.S. was building its territorial empire. Within 11 years, in 1882, the United States moved from foreign enemies to friends with Korea. However, by 1910, Japan colonized Korea. 

I began asking what happened to U.S.-Korea relations between those periods. What was the United States’ role with Japan? The relationship between the U.S. and Korea did not cease, but changed in name. Relationships between other imperial powers — including Japan — needed to be written in the context of the U.S.-Korea relations. 

We’re currently in a Hallyu Wave (a popular Korean cultural wave) within the U.S., with the consumption of Korean food, music, dramas, and movies increasing. Without understanding the cultural history of the U.S. relationship to Korea from the 1870s, we can’t contextualize or understand Korean culture and people — which is important when the lines of appropriation and appreciation are ever so blurry.

You interned at the University’s art museum, what was that like?

My year at the Snite Museum of Art was wonderful. I use visual sources in my work and wanted to develop my object literacy skills. I chose to do the Object-Based Teaching Fellowship to learn more about a university museum setting as a potential career and to immerse myself with objects and art. 

The Snite is where I learned how to become a teacher. Every Friday, Bridget Hoyt, the curator of education, led a group of undergraduate gallery teachers and myself on methods of teaching from the gallery. Teaching is something that’s taught.

As a fellow, I worked with Bridget and various professors who wanted to organize class visits. I often chose objects with professors or with Bridget that would emphasize a course’s themes or materials. Then, I led the class through a few objects and provided snippets of information for students to ask questions that would lead them to conclusions or more research about the objects. I also led a few of the Moreau First Year Experience classes. 

I learned what worked for me and what didn’t, what students responded to, and how to ask clear questions that allow students to form their own conclusions. I loved interacting with all different types of students, and even ran into a few prior students I TA’d for! 

“The Snite is where I learned how to become a teacher. ...  I learned what worked for me and what didn’t, what students responded to, and how to ask clear questions that allow students to form their own conclusions.”

What inspired your dissertation? What do you seek to discover and how do you hope that it contributes to greater understanding and progress?

Working on this project has been difficult, to say the least. I came here to study the World’s Fairs at the turn of the 20th century and the U.S. cultural empire. My adviser, Rebecca Tinio McKenna, inspired me to explore the dimensions of the U.S. in the world. I remembered reading Daniel Kane’s conference paper,  “A Fair Specimen of Corea/Korea: Perceptions of the Korean Delegation to the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition (1893).” The paper revealed a role Korea — which was trying to find its own representations of modernity — played in the U.S. and on the world stage. 

Professor McKenna also shared, “Whose ‘Barbarism’? Whose ‘Treachery’? Race and Civilization in the Unknown United States-Korea War of 1871,” by historian Gordon Chang. It provided the timeline frame of my dissertation and pointed me toward the first photographic representations of Koreans taken by an Italian-British war photographer [Felice Beato, who portrayed Americans heroically] hired by the U.S.

Even with all these small pieces of evidence depicting U.S.-Korea relations at the turn of the 20th century, it was the Atlanta shootings last March 16 [in which a gunman killed eight people, six of Asian descent] that pushed me to work on this as my dissertation. 

I was invited to take part in the Liu Institute’s “Processing Anti-Asian Violence: A Roundtable Discussion on the Atlanta Shootings.” Working on what I would say gave me time to process and evaluate what kind of dissertation I really wanted to write. Meeting other Asian American scholars at Notre Dame also encouraged me to work on something new. I had been speaking with my advisor about a U.S-Korea project, but it wasn’t until this roundtable that my emotions caught up with reality. 

I realized that learning this history was my tool of empowerment. Last March, I was going through racial fatigue. My healing began through this study. I’ve already developed a better relationship with my family. While I understand the world that I study is different from those my grandmother and my parents encountered, I started asking questions. I was able to contextualize and humanize them. 

“Doing history” gives us tools to understand the complexities of life — and of, well, history. I am at the beginning of this research. I hope this work contributes to the growing literature about U.S.-East Asia relations and that it questions how we begin to understand U.S. power in the world. 

Why did you choose Notre Dame? 

Because of the fabulous faculty in our department and over at the Department of American Studies. I was also looking for different types of pedagogy and thought. I loved my time at The New School and it was perfect for me then, but I was looking for change. Notre Dame is also a childhood home to my husband. Doing a doctoral program was the dream — combining home and academics.

What’s next?

My biggest goal is to finish my dissertation. I am preparing for three potential careers: curator of education at a university museum, academic advising/college admissions, and academia.