Are National Museums a Window into the soul of the Country?

I think that National Museums might be considered one Window into the Soul of a Country, along with school curriculum, and the employment rate. After all, what National Museums say, and what they don’t say, how they look, and how they are maintained, while not the only way to get to know a country, can be imagined by the visitor as one way to find out how the country sees itself and how at least officially it wants ‘foreigners’ to see them.

From this perspective – the National Museum of Korea in Seoul – the 12th most visited museum in the world – offers a unique and intriguing glimpse into how Korean see themselves.

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The Museum is huge – and extremely modern. I’ll give the Korean’s credit – they sure know how to do huge public spaces. This is not the first example I’ve seen of this kind of massive public building here in Korea – and if Museums are windows – the first look at this Museum says – I’m a huge house.

The landscaped grounds alone are impressive – acres and acres of lakes, sculptures, pagoda, entrance walkways, ramps, and gathering spaces. So large that I can’t even imagine walking around the entire complex – not if I wanted to see the Museum too.

And it’s clean and it’s all free. Only the special exhibits carry a charge – and the next one is a bit surprisingly entitled – “Art in America”. The good news – it hadn’t opened yet – so we were free to concentrate on seeing the Permanent (Rotating) collections. The museum’s total collection is 330,000 pieces – only 13,000 of which can be displayed at any one time. They have 67 National Treasures, 131 General Treasures, and 4 folklore assets.

There are 3 huge floors – each one large enough to be considered a museum on its own, a gigantic and un-photograpable rotunda paved in marble, a children’s museum which we could not enter (no kids with us), a huge and moderately priced restaurant on the main floor, 2 more restaurants on other floors, a tea room, a gift shop that stretched at least 500 feet, free lockers for back-packs, stroller rental, cell phone charging station (not sure why on that), an information booth, and an audio rental booth with 2 kinds of guides – an audio only one and a fancier Samsung version complete with pictures. The pleasant hostess told us that foreigners tend to like the simpler one better – so we opted for that. Grabbing our maps – we headed into the Museum proper.

Korea is extremely proud of its history – and there is evidence of sophisticated civilizations on the Korean Peninsula since pre-historic times. Clearly this pride rings out thru the museum – and is one of the reasons I felt that I was looking into the soul of the country. School groups, even on Sunday, were present though out the museum, but unlike other groups we’ve seen – these groups were small in numbers (10 to 12 max) – and the instructors focused the kids attention on selected small sections. Discussions were clearly animated and conversational not lectures. Very different from what we’d seen in other Museums on other days.

The first floor of the museum covers the history of Korea – from Paleolithic to what is called on the map – Early Modern – but in fact ended just prior to the invasion by Japan in 1905. This in itself is interesting. Nothing in the museum dates from the last 100 years. Consider the meaning of this – is the modern history of Korea inappropriate for the National Museum? Is it not interesting? Is there nothing worth collecting? To say I was surprised by the abrupt end of the ‘history’ section is an understatement, and left us wondering who and why this happened.

There were several extremely interesting sections in the ‘history’ portion – primarily a copy of a book printed in moveable metal type 71 years before Gutenberg’s bible and an exhaustive explanation (in English) of the events between the end of the Silla era and the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty. We’d been wondering what had happened during those almost 500 years – and we finally got to find out.

The most interesting parts of the exhibits on the 2nd floor were the collections of works donated by individuals to the museum. It is amazing how many beautiful things are saved by the actions of just a few individuals.

The third floor was split into two sections – One half was a series of mini-rooms devoted to the art from other Asian countries – most impressive of which was an animated multi-part Chinese painting. As you watched, the seasons changed, people moved around the landscape, night fell, snow-covered the ground, the moon rose. All very beautiful and very peaceful. The 2nd section was devoted to pottery (see one pot, seen most..) and a fabulous collection of Statues of Buddha rescued from various temples around the country. Easily my favorite part.

Bottom line – this is a huge museum – there are highlights, a lot of things to see – and while nothing outstanding breath-taking, well worth the full day it took us to see all 3 floors. And such a great price point – free!

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

6 thoughts on “Are National Museums a Window into the soul of the Country?

  1. Maybe they leave it to another museum to pick up from 1905 onward? Or those are the special exhibits and they rotate?
    Did they make up the entrance cost in eating at the museum? I imagine it would be tempting, once they have you inside…

    • Interesingly – the food in the main restaurant wasn’t that bad – $8 for a pork cutlet with rice and kimchi. nice size too. But the ‘better’ restaurants were hugely expensive. Amazing. And I agree – perhaps another muesum picks up the slack. but the point is – this was the National Museum – and it didn’t.

  2. I like the point you make (and questions you ask) about why the museum stops at 1905. The National Gallery in London stopped collecting in the early 20th century as well I think and it is hugely controversial.

    • Interesting – didn’t know that. Anyone else know about musuems that ‘stop’ collecting – and more importantly – why?

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