Best History Museum Ever!


Ok – it’s an odd fascination – but I actually enjoy History Museums – particularly if they are well done. They always tell you something about the culture of the country – or at least about what the government thinks is important to know.

Given the outlines of Current German history – Loved Napoleon, Hated Napoleon, Wanted a Democracy, Didn’t want a Democracy, Started World War I, Lost World War I, Had a Democracy that actually elected Hitler, Started World War II, Lost World War II, Got Divided, Got United, and now has a Democracy – well – the history museum in Berlin was bound to be interesting.

Particularly in comparison to say – Canada.

So we coughed up the big bucks – thank goodness for my Student Card – I was 1/2 price – and immediately started with the special exhibit on Leipzig 1813. Given that we’d just been there re-enacting the battle – seeing what the curators at the Deutsches Historisches Museum had to say was bound to be interesting. And it was. The exhibit – clearly taking the German point of view, started with a very famous painting showing the victors of the battle – the King of Prussia (Germany), Emperor of Austria and the Emperor of Russia – getting news of the victory. From there – the curators decided what to show – and what not to show.

The exhibit started with guns, wagon wheels and cannons – the tools of war. It also featured the skelton of a horse – found in a mass grave at the battle field site. From there it went into a brief history of Napoleon, from the point of view of his opponents. His errors are pointed out – and while mention of the Code Civil is made, the point is also made that the application of the Code was hardly even. Yes, feudal estates were broken up – but often they were just handed over to his relatives. And while his emphasis on promotion thru ability rather than family position was mentioned, it was also pointed out that his opponents learned the same lesson, and applied much of the same strategy by the end of the war. A lot of attention was focused on the forced draft in France – and the ‘volunteer’ armies of his opponents. Certainly the history they showed, and the history we thought we knew were quite different.

And as I’ve mentioned before – that’s what makes going to history museums in other countries so fascinating – there is always more than one point of view.

The exhibit ended with a short video about the re-enactment of the battle of Leipzig in 2012 – and in many ways – this was the most striking section. Instead of 6000 re-enactors – there were about 600 – and instead of using a portion of the actual battle field – they used the small field that we’d used to assemble just the french troops. Oh what a difference a year makes.

I left the exhibt amazed at the organization required to put on the re-enactment I had just participated in. It was incredible.

From that special exhibit, we worked our way over to the general section of the history museum, admiring the architecture as we went. The museum is huge – and we opted to skip most of it, and focus just on the sections that interested us most – 1778 onwards. The section for 1778 to 1816 – which covered the battles against Napoleon featured some wonderful pieces of art – including a painting of Napoleon in his corination robes – and most impressively – his hat, sword, and stirrups – left in his carriage at Waterloo in 1815 when he excaped after the disaster to Paris. Cool.

From there we read with great interest – and some surprise – the German perspective on the lead-up to World War I, the elation followed by the depression of the results of that war, and then the negative feelings about the treaty of Versaile. In the German history – it is that treaty more than anything else that brought about the conditions that allowed Hitler and his minons to appeal to such a wide audience. The museum contains a significant section effectively appologizing for the treatment of the Jews, the Roma, and the handicapped. There is no attempt to sugar coat that truth. The run-up to World War II is covered in great detail, as is what was happening in Germany during the war. After the war, the division is described, and the museum ends history in 2000 – 10 years after the fall of the Wall and the re-unification of Germany.

This is an outstanding muesum. Not one that you want to zip thru – but one that you want to slowly see – hear – experience. There are English signs in most sections, but getting the audio guide is well worth the small expense. The descriptions are absolutely reviting. We effectively got ‘kicked’ out by the closing bells.

Great Museum. Definitely a must go!

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Heroes of Korea’s Golden Ages – Admiral Yi Sunshin and King Sejong


“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797)

I think Edmund was onto something here – Knowing the past (not worrying about it – that’s different) isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing if you use it to help in the present!

And Koreans love their heroes – and two of the most famous, and most revered are King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sunshin. There are statues of them here and there, just about every museum mentions something about them, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they each rate an entire free exhibit, interestingly enough located in the basement of the Seoul Museum of Art. I’d seen signs for these exhibits when we’d first hit Seoul – but it took us almost our entire visit to get up the energy to go. I’m really sorry we waited. The exhibit on Admiral Yi Sunshin is fabulous, and while King Sejong’s isn’t quite as outstanding – it is remarkably informative.

First King Sejong. He was the fourth King of the Joseon Dynasty, he reigned from 1418 to 1450 (31 years!) and is most famous for having created the Korean alphabet (Hangeul). Just imagine that – until King Sejong – despite having their own language, Korean were using the Chinese pictogram system with its thousands of different images. King Sejong declared that Koreans deserved something better – and he created it with the help of advisers. He even wrote books and music in the new alphabet to help make it popular.

The Koreans went from having to learn tens of thousands of different symbols to learning just 28. Those 28 symbols (only 24 are in use today) were created by King Sejong, based on the way Korean is spoken. They are said to resemble the way your mouth moves when you are speaking Korean.

This I knew from countless other museum exhibits – what I didn’t know about the reign of King Sejong was that it was a golden age of invention. Under his inspiration, uniquely Korean musical instruments were created, uniquely Korean music was born, rain gauges were invented to help farmers, he had a manual written in his new alphabet to help farmers, there were multiple military advances, he inspired people to create astrological instruments, etc., etc.

Comparison note: Queen Elizabeth I reigned from 1533 to 1603 – 100 years later!

King Sejong passed many laws that were – for the time – extremely revolutionary, including one that allowed new mothers, even if they were slaves, time off work to care for their babies.

If you are inspired to learn more about King Sejong – and can’t hop on a plane to fly to Korea and visit this exhibit – at least check out the Wikipedia article about him:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sejong_the_Great
He is amazing. Exhibit was pretty good too.

But it was the exhibit on Admiral Yi Sunshin that I found the most intriguing. Remember – the Intrepid Traveler is a Docent in Montreal – so how museum exhibits are designed is almost as important to us as the information they are trying to convey. This exhibit neatly demonstrated almost all the newest ideas about how to ‘teach history’ – in one relatively tiny space.

Quick history – Admiral Yi Sunshin lived from 1545 to 1598. He created the ‘Turtle Ship’, a completely new warship and was instrumental in defeating the Japanese at sea during the Imjin War (the Japanese Invasions of Korea 1592-1598). In one of his most famous sea battles – he faced 131 Japanese war ships with only 13 of his own – and won. Not only did he win, but he didn’t lose a boat – and his ships destroyed 33 of the Japanese vessels before the Japanese retreated. Clearly an outstanding strategist.

He was demoted several times (not the easiest guy to get along with I’m thinking), he was actually stripped of his rank and imprisoned at one point, and yet he came back again and again to fight for his country. He was killed by a bullet during his last battle.

But it’s not this history, neat as it is, that made this exhibit so impressive – it was how they tried to make it interesting that most impressed me.

There was an interactive electronic picture book that was appeared in the language of your choice, and was read to you – in your language, as you ‘flipped’ the pages electronically. Cool.

There was an interactive game that put you and a friend on the rowing oar of a ‘turtle ship’ – invented by Admiral Yi Sunshin – chasing a fleeing Japanese vessel. There was a wooden model of a turtle ship (50% size) that you could enter to see what if felt like inside (very claustrophobic), there were 2 very realistic guns and 2 slow loading cannons of the period that you could ‘fire’ at attacking ships, there was a movie about one of his famous battles with sound effects on multiple screens with English sub-titles that ended with the screen disappearing and the model of the turtle ship suddenly appearing (remember – it’s huge), in front of you – as if you were being attacked.

There was even a 4D battle movie, about 8 minutes long, that featured puffs of air, water spray and moving chairs while you watched a naval battle unfurl in front of you. Well worth waiting to see.

2 Impressive Exhibits – both free, one opened on October 9, 2009 (Hangeul Day), the other opened on April 28, 2010 in honor of Admiral Yi Sunshin’s date of birth – and both running continuously since then. I’d rate these a must see if you visit Seoul – and I wouldn’t be alone there – they have had at least 230,000 visitors since they opened!

Signing off to go watch a Korean version of Glee (see tomorrows blog) – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

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.