A place to clutch at straw’s historyStraw once played an important role in the daily lives of all Koreans, providing the material for buildings, household goods, agricultural tools and clothing.
Following 20th-century industrialization, straw became largely a relic of a Korean past described only in books and legends. Today one would have to visit a rural farming village to find it.
Visiting the Korea Museum of Straw and Plants Handicrafts is one alternative to trekking deep into the countryside. The decade-old museum was founded by In Byung-sun, a 68-year-old who has been fascinated with straw for over 25 years. Her eagerness to research and preserve elements of this craft led her to open the museum.
“The beauty of items made of straw is that they are made with our own hands,” Ms. In says. “They are by-products of nature and of the environment. As our quality of life improves, people tend to seek things from nature, and that makes straw all the more important and worthy of preservation.”
More than 200 items are displayed at this museum. In the first exhibition hall, one finds displays of farming implements made from straw, such as a cow mask, a grain bag and containers for eggs.
Items related to customs of different eras include a straw doll, similar to scarecrows found in the West. Such effigies were used during agricultural ceremonies in ancient Korea, to wish for a bountiful harvest.
Other curiosities are a lion mask used in ritual dances and a raincoat made of longer tufts of grass. This all-in-one outfit features an attached head cover, and its straw is woven tightly enough to be waterproof.
Traditional wedding garb and ornaments, as well as straw shoes, are also featured. Because the shoes only lasted about 10 days, families of long ago prepared at least 10 pairs of shoes per person before winter set in. Straw is not the only material on hand; items made from reeds, hemp and bamboo are here.
In the second exhibition hall, the emphasis shifts to practical household tools and appliances. A spinning wheel, lamp stand and Joseon-era laundry paddle are some of the highlights here. For those with a scientific bent, samples of pine tree roots, mulberry tree skin (used for paper), barley, cattails and a viny species known as Cocculus trilobus are shown.
Ms. In arranges courses at the museum to teach the art of weaving straw into crafts; she starts a class once 10 or more people enroll. Classes meet once a week for three months.
“The museum’s role is to preserve and perpetuate this fine cultural heritage of ours,” says Ms. In.
The museum can be reached by taking subway line No. 4 to Hyehwa Station, exit 4, and walking straight about 50 meters. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Mondays and holidays. For more information call (02) 743-8787~8 or visit the Web site, www.zipul.com.
by Choi Jie-ho