Chang-Su Houchins

Photo from The Korea Times

Korean American, Museum Work, Material Culture

Chang-Su Houchins


Chang-su Cho Houchins was a scholar and a museum specialist who contributed to making East Asian culture accessible to the American public. Born in 1925, in Pyongyang, Korea, she studied anthropology at Japan Women’s University in Tokyo during WWII. After coming to the US, Houchins earned her BA from MacMurray College (1950), and then her MA from the University of Washington (1953). A lifelong scholar, Houchins continued to take courses at University of California Berkeley, George Washington University, and American University. 

Houchins worked as a Korean-language instructor for the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, as well as for the American Embassy in Seoul. In 1960, she became the Korea specialist for the East Asiatic library at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1965, she began her four-decade tenure at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History as a museum specialist in Asian Ethnology in the Department of Anthropology.

Fluent in both Japanese and Korean, Houchins worked on a range of projects in collaboration with her museum colleagues as well as with scholars and curators from other institutions. Her work on the John Baptist Bernadou, Mathew Perry and Ronnyn Hitchcock collections of Korean and Japanese artifacts helped to document and contextualize material culture from significant moments in these countries’ histories. She brought more recent scholarship as well as personal insights based on her upbringing in Korea to bear on her descriptions and reinterpretation of these older collections.

Houchins was involved in many Smithsonian displays and installations of East Asian collections, but her work was largely behind the scenes as a researcher and exhibition coordinator. She was also a part of the Smithsonian National History Museum’s Asian Cultural History Program. Houchins mentored emerging museum professionals by supervising interns in practicum from George Washington University. Throughout her career, she continued to publish numerous scholarly articles on Korean and Japanese traditional art, culture and heritage. In 2007, two years before her retirement, she co-curated the Korean Gallery with Paul Michael Taylor, a permanent exhibition that opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

In the 1980s, Houchins played a pivotal role in the return of over 90 artifacts that had been removed from Korea under questionable circumstances during the Korean conflict. These items included royal seals from the Joseon dynasty. Houchins helped to mobilize the Korean and Korean American communities to raise money through the Korean Heritage Fund to support the return of these items to the National Museum of Korea. She was admired and respected for this work as well as for her scholarship in Korea, and in 2013, she was posthumously awarded one of the highest cultural honors in South Korea, the Okgwan Order of Cultural Merit.

Houchin’s publications are listed below, some of which are published under her former name of Swanson:

Swanson, Chang-Su. “Problems and Solutions: Korean Folktales and Personality.” The Journal of American Folklore 81, no. 320 (1968): 121–32.

With Lee Houchins, “The Korean Experience in America, 1903-1924.” Pacific Historical Review 43, no. 4 (1974): 548–75.

Grace Dahye Kwon