If you don’t know this about me already, let me tell you I love museums, whether they are Art Museums or History museums they fill me with so much joy. I love learning new things about cultures, and I love when they challenge my ideals, making me think about the world. At times, they make me really sleepy by overwhelming me with information, but that doesn’t make me love them any less.
When I spent 9 days in Seoul this past January, I spent time in four Korean museums, and these are my thoughts.
The National Museum of Korea
Located near Namasan tower, The National Museum of Korea is a must-hit for History Buffs, Art enthusiasts, and archeology lovers. The museum has three floors. Level 1 focuses on Korean History, Level 2 focuses on Korean art and art across Asia, and the final level being let to art from across the world, including an Egyptian exhibit.
I could only see the first level on this trip, but the four hours I spent there were exciting. I began wondering through the pre-recorded history of Korea. Learning about the first people who migrated to Korea. Then I continued through the exhibit, learning about all the different kingdoms that ruled Korea. Each Dynasty brought something new to Korean culture and was a force to be reckoned with. The Kingdoms of Korea won war after war with China, Mongolia (think invasion Viking style on boats, and Japan. My time at the museum ended with the rebranding of the Joseon Dynasty and the fall of the Joseon Empire.
The museum gives you an excellent overview of Korean history with relics from every era. The one strange thing I noticed here that was reinforced at the other museums I went to in Seoul was that there are a lot of replicas. Much of Korean history has been burned from various wars and fires, so there are not as many artifacts left. Luckily Koreans were really great record keepers, taking detailed notes of their art processes and how things were built. This allows museums across Korea to create very accurate replicas. Other replicas are made from damaged pieces since Koreans prefer to hold up the integrity of important artifacts by displaying them in what would have been the height of their glory. I find this practice really interesting and frustrating at the same time. It’s cool to see reproductions of pieces owned by/built-in North Korea and China. South Koreans have lost access to a lot of their history. This is the only way many of them will get to see pieces that are important to the development of their culture. The frustrating part of these reproductions is that there is a tone of them. In some cases, most of the items are reproductions, and they are not well marked. It makes you wonder (from a western point of view) if what you see is a glamorized reproduction rather than an accurate representation of each piece.
The Museum had a lot of really unique Pieces. My favorites included a reproduction of the jewelry and the giant pagoda.
I highly recommend The National Museum; it’s well-curated and offers insight into the ancient history of the young nation. The one thing you may find odd is how some things don’t timeline well, and many negative aspects of Korean history are missing. Two examples of this are government forced slavery and the discussion of and the practice of human sacrifice that ended in the Shilla dynasty. I’m not sure if this is because of the language barrier or if what we see is only the representation of Korean history that the government wants the public to see. Most likely, it is the combination of the two, with the loss of most of their historical records to fire, war, and private collectors being the main reason.
The Folk Museum of Korea
The Folk museum focuses on the everyday life of Koreans and different shamanistic traditions, some of which still influence the culture today. They have a history awl outside the museum through two different eras of Korean housing and various statues found around Korea. Some of the pieces have been relocated here, while others are reproductions.
Inside the Museum, the main exhibit winds you through everyday traditional Korean life as the year’s four seasons tell. This was a unique and badass way to learn about how traditions, rites, and daily life differed depending on the time of year and the stage of one’s life. In spring, they discussed birth, weddings in summer, and death in winter.
If you’re really interested in Korean Holidays, the Folk Museum is the best way to learn about them. Most Korean holidays take place in the homestead, with ancestor worship rituals only for the family eyes. Nowadays, few Koreans are still practicing these traditions. More often, holidays are just celebrated with a large family dinner.
If the quality of their special exhibit I saw was any indication of the quality of all their special exhibitions, then it’s a must-see. The first special exhibit I saw explained the importance of tigers in Korean culture since 2022 is the year of the Tiger according to the Chinese zodiac. The second exhibit blew me away. “Our Lives Beyond the Pandemic” told the story of pandemics in Korea based on historical records and artwork. Most of the records were passed down for generations by the family members of doctors who practiced in small villages and towns. These records are dated as early as 15 BCE. It was extremely powerful to see the documents laid out in cases and along the walls.
After walking through the record room, I found myself in a room talking about how diseases were healed throughout Korean history. This started with shaman exorcisms different talismans to ward off spirits and ended with the telling of the first vaccines coming to Korea.
This powerful exhibit’s final room was a record to date of our ongoing pandemic, Covid-19. On display were uniforms, cleaners used to clean classrooms, quarantine care packages, and masks while telling the story of different frontline workers in the first days of the initial outbreak. This exhibit was powerful and moving.
Overall this museum wasn’t one of my favorites despite its unique artifacts and exciting curation. I was bumped that they didn’t go into depth about shamanism because its influence, although taboo, is apparent in Korean culture today. It felt more like a brief overview of Korean life and traditions, something you could have learned about by going to Naganusong or another folk village. In my opinion, the best part of the museum is the quality of the special exhibits. I will definitely make me revisit the museum to see them alone.
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary
This one was a disappointment despite the thought-provoking exhibits. I hope it’s only due to covid and how they are restricting access. Don’t get me wrong, three of their installations blew me away. Like, the one that showed a fictional movie telling different stories of those who live in the DMZ Freedom village.
Yes, you heard that there is a South Korean village in the Demilitarized Zone and a North Korean Village. Artist Choi Chan Sook’s piece 60 Ho was thought-provoking and emotional. It made me think about whether it is worth it to hold onto one’s land, who can claim ownership to land, and what freedom looks like if you live somewhere where you need permission to do anything in your life.
The other exhibit I loved was Defend the Future by Ai Weiwei, looking at what freedom of speech/the press means today and how it affects our world views. It discussed this topic in several different ways.
Among the topics were the previous US presidential election, the push to deport the Wiki Leaks founder for trial, the stalled Korean Anti-discrimination law, and the push in Korea for an Anti-Fake News law. I think my favorite ways he created a catharsis to protect free speech and fight for our future was through his portrayal of the refugee crisis and showing everyday products such as shoes, handcuffs, and a Coke can elevated to the status of art/god.
Those two exhibits were well worth the price of the museum. For me, the strict path you had to follow due to covid, the nonclear marked entrances into the museum itself, and the lack of museum maps detracted a lot from the whole experience. I actually went to see the one exhibit I found the exit to but was told I couldn’t go in the entrance was in another building. After looking around for 10 minutes on how to get to this other part, I gave up in frustration and left. I think I’ll wait till the museum lifts its crowd control to go back.
The National Palace Museum of Korea
Right outside Gyyeongbokgung Palace is a museum devoted to the building and rule of the 6? different Palaces in Seoul by the Joan Dynasty. This museum is really well-curated.
There is a digital timeline of all the kings, emperors, price consorts, and queens that ruled United Korea for 500 years when you first walk in. This timeline gives you a sense of how the empire was run, the ruling family’s expectations, and what expectations their positions held. As you walk through the museum, you get to see why Koreans still morn the loss of the empire. Before Japanese colonialism, Korea had international ties with the West and China. They were deeply invested in philosophy, the arts, and knowledge. They had made scientific advances alongside the rest of the world, including an impressively accurate watercock in 1434 and a sundial made the same year. These exhibits make it clear that pre-Colonisum Korea was a Kingdome focused on advancing globally, ready to modernize itself and be a force to be reckoned with. The Last King/ first Emperor King Gojong 고종/ Emperor Gwangmun 광무제 had even taken it upon himself to rebrand the Joseon Dynasty into an Empire.
Part of Emperor Gwangmun’s rebranding included a push to become a constitutional monarchy; by doing this, he was claiming Korea’s place amongst western nations. He did this to maintain independence from their neighboring countries and shield his people from the west’s involvement in internal affairs. Unfortunately, his hopes for the kingdom was thwarted by internal fighting, the assassination of his wife Empress Myeongseong 명성황후 by Japan, and finally, Japan’s official annexation of Korea in 1910.
The Palace Museum tells the rich history of the Joseon Dynasty, full of insane monarchs, court intrigue, rebellions, and invasion. It presents a visual reminder of the destructiveness of colonialism. The Museum makes you wonder if Korea would have become the power it is today faster if Japan never sought to “save Koreans from their low morals” and use them to gain global dominance.
Experiencing museums in Korea has really made me want to go back and see how the history of the US is told in museums back home. I always knew many things were water down white versions of the story. Still, it never felt like there were holes left in museums’ timelines to edit out the unsavory parts of American history completely. Maybe it’s because I’m a little more woke than when I was younger. I am now able to look at museums with a more critical eye, but to me, that’s part of the fun of learning about the history of the world.
Address: 137 Seobinggo-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, 04383
Note: It is on the south side of Yogsan park next to the War Memorial Hall of Korea (covers the Korean War)
The National Folk Museum of Korea
Address: Samcheongdong-gil 37, Jongno-gu, Seoul 03045
Note: Its on the west side of Gyeongbokgung Palace
The National Palace Museum of Korea
Address: Hyojaro 12, Jongno-gu, Seoul 03045
Note: It is inside the first gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace before you have to pay to enter the palace.
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul
Cost: 4,000 KRW
Address: 30 Samcheong-ro (Seogyeok-dong), Jongno-gu, Seoul 03062
Note: There are several brances or exihibit halls across Korea I went to the above address
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