For a real hoot, take off for this placeIn the West, the owl is a symbol of wisdom, though it was once feared for its association with death. Today, this nocturnal bird of prey is regarded as a sage and a protector of homes everywhere.
Bae Myung-hee considers these qualities of the owl and more reasons why she started collecting owl memorabilia more than two decades ago. “In Mexico, owls are a symbol of wealth. In Japan, owls bring good luck, while in ancient Greece, the owl has always followed Athena, the goddess of wisdom,” says Ms. Bae, 49, owner and curator of The Owl Museum in Samcheong-dong, which opened last week.
On the day the museum opened, Ms. Bae, the reporter and Ms. Bae’s 23-year-old son, who was helping out with the displays, were the only people present.
There are more than 3,000 items at the museum, all scattered and displayed in a a somewhat random manner. Everything from owl lamps, clocks, ornaments, rugs and puzzles are on view, all except for a stuffed owl, which is against the law to own.
“Because this place is so new, I didn’t really think about having a savvy layout like they do at most museums,” says Ms. Bae. “I want to show everything I have, and then perhaps we’ll do the rearranging according to theme later on.”
You can’t help gasp at all the owl eyes staring back from the wall-to-wall glass shelves. There are owl vases, owl crystals, owl paintings and even handbags made from owl feathers, along with a plastic statue of Hedwig, Harry Potter’s feathery sidekick. Because owls here come in all sizes and shapes -- from postage stamps to large vases -- it’s quite like venturing into owl heaven, where no man has gone before.
Ms. Bae’s collection comes from more than 80 countries. She says, “Of course, I didn’t travel to all those countries. I had to rely on my husband’s business trips abroad, my son’s backpacking excursions to Europe and my sons’ numerous friends who would go abroad for various reasons.” And over the years, Ms. Bae regularly attended bazaars, flea markets and antique shops in and around Seoul, to add to her collection.
Ms. Bae says that none of the items costs more than a million won ($816), which supports her philosophy on collecting. “True collectors do not go after expensive items and antiques only. They gather cheap ones as well because that’s what it means to be a collector.”
Known as the “Owl Mom” in her neighborhood, Ms. Bae says, “There are many owl museums in Japan. This is the first private museum in Korea dedicated to an animal.”
As her collection grew, friends visited her home to look at the peculiar displays, such as a small tree trunk carved with an owl’s facial features. Soon her family and friends encouraged her to open a museum, but because of the financial burden, that became possible only through a bank loan. “We’re not a well-to-do family, but I would rather save money on my clothes than collecting owls,” says Ms. Bae. “They bring such joy to my family.” A mother of two grown sons, Ms. Bae describes herself as “just an ordinary ajumma in love with owls.”
Each item seems to hold a special place in Ms. Bae’s heart, and as she walks about her museum she gives a running commentary on the items on the shelves. “This little lamp was something my husband got from Vienna... and this one from Tibet I bought in a local market...” her voice trails off, then continues, “Even if some of my items are dusty and worn out, they are beautiful nonetheless.”
Ms. Bae says, “I have never sold any owl item that I collected and I don’t intend to do so. They are like my children.”
by Choi Jie-ho
To reach the Owl Museum, take subway line No. 3 to Anguk Station,then the No. 2 maeul bus to Board of Audit and Inspection Building. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. but closed Mondays. Admission is 5,000 won, including free coffee, tea or juice. For more information call (02) 3210-2902 or visit www.owlmuseum.co.kr.