Women’s history has home in SeoulTucked away behind Camp Grey in Daebang-dong, southwestern Seoul, away from the main street, is a soaring glass structure that goes unnoticed by many. It’s one of only four museums in the world that’s devoted to women’s issues, and yet few know about it.
The Seoul Women’s Plaza, established by the Ministry of Gender Equality, opened two years ago. Within this center is the History of Women Exhibition Hall, which opened in December 2002, at a construction cost of 1.7 billion won ($1.5 million).
Designed by the in-house staff, the hall has five permanent exhibitions: education, activists, work, changes in status and media coverage. Audio devices are available in English and Japanese, and many of the exhibit signs are also in English.
The museum’s curator, Moon Ho-kyung, lists three other countries ― the United States, Japan and Germany ― with museums focusing on women. Only 7,000 people annually have visited the one in Seoul, which is free.
“We’re young,” says Ms. Moon. The same could be said of the Ministry of Gender Equality, which was set up in 2001, and the of women’s movement in Korea.
According to the museum’s brochure, written by Chi Eun-hee, minister for gender equality, the museum was created to highlight the accomplishments of women, which are often obscured in history.
As a result, finding the raw materials that are the pride of the museum exhibitions took tremendous effort. Even finding newspaper clippings was a consuming task.
“Finding historical artifacts is hard, but it’s especially hard when the subject is women,” Ms. Moon says. “It was frowned upon for women to be in the public eye.” Families were quite often embarrassed if the women in the family were too active outside the home.
Tracking down female leaders was difficult, but rewarding. “I didn’t realize there were so many pioneers,” Ms. Moon says. “The only one I knew was Yu Gwan-sun, a freedom fighter. But there were a lot more, a movie actress, pilot, philanthropist.”
The museum’s focus on unsung female leaders is why Lim Eun-mie, a professor at Ewha Womans University, brought her class to visit. “I wish more people knew about this hall, and that schools made it a mandatory place to visit,” she says.
It was only recently that Ms. Lim, who teaches a course on gender relations at the international co-ed summer school program, read an article in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper about the Seoul Women’s Plaza. Her class, which is mostly made up of college students from the United States, has been focusing on Korean women through the ages.
Ms. Lim called the center immediately to get permission to bring her gender relations class to the History of Women Exhibition Hall, particularly to see the temporary exhibition on women’s education.
As she walked though the exhibition, history came to life. “I remember the names, but it’s the first time I’ve seen their pictures,” Ms. Lim says. “They are the first generation of the women’s movement. These are amazing women.”
The entrance to a special exhibition on women’s education, which runs through October, leads to a dark room lit by colorful paper lanterns covered in writing. The approach the staff took with the display is described as “dongsangimo,” which means “to be in bed with people whose dreams differ from yours.” The saying alludes to the reason why women in Korea were finally allowed schooling.
“Men thought education would create a good wife. Parents were afraid that in-laws would look down on a girl who wasn’t educated. But girls thought education was a way out,” Ms. Moon says.
The education women received was different from the education that men received. Women studied from a different ethics book. But education gave women a chance to branch out of the vertical relationships in Confucius society and establish horizontal relationships with peers.
“They were able to do sports, dance, wear shorts and short skirts,” Ms. Moon says, pointing to pictures in the next room. “It was a whole new world.” This room is set up like a small classroom, with pictures covering the walls and textbooks and pictures encased in glass within the desks.
At the museum there is a short section on women’s history, starting with prehistoric times, when women were worshipped as goddesses of fertility, and ending just before the modern age. This part includes information on the three queens during the Shilla Dynasty (Seondeok, Jindeok and Jinseong) and how widespread education of hangul, the Korean alphabet, during the latter part of the Joseon Dynasty meant higher literacy rates for women.
And thus begins the focus of the museum ― the past 100 years.
“Women Wake Up” features not just an exhibit of women education books, but an interactive program. A monitor on the wall allows people to create avatars of different girls’ school uniforms and popular hairstyles.
“Women Stand Up” chronicles 100 years of the Korean Women’s Movement, from the Japanese Colonial period on. “Women Work” takes a look at the different occupations women have handled, including traditional domestic duties.
But the highlight of this section is a monument to 15 pioneers, including the freedom fighter Ms. Yu. Her peers include Baek Seon-haeng, a philanthropist; Choi Yong-shin, a rural movement worker; Park Esther, a doctor, and Lee Wol-hwa, a pilot.
“These women tried so hard to get here,” Ms. Moon says. “Today, do women appreciate their efforts or try as hard? And at the same time, today, there’s so much still left to learn.”
“Women Change” takes a look at the influence of modernization, such as in housing. Women once lived in the traditional Korean homes housing multiple generations (of which they were responsible for the household chores), then apartments, now some single women have the option of living alone.
“Women Are Seen” examines women’s image in the media. About 50 Korean movies, from “Free Woman” (1950) to “Take Care of My Cat” (2002), were spliced with interviews with directors and actresses to create a documentary, “2002 Women’s Theater: In Raptures,” which is in Korean only.
Outside the screening room is a wall set up with speakers for visitors to listen to poetry, legends, snippets of novels and folksongs by women.
After seeing the exhibition, Mike Pope, a 32-year-old graduate student of liberal arts from the United States, says, “It was good to see everything we’re learning confirmed by the museum.”
Kang Hee-jae, another summer school student and a 19-year-old history major from the United States, was surprised a center like this is funded by the government, and by the quality of the exhibition.
She was initially hesitant about taking the course, but has been pleasantly surprised. “I thought Korea lagged behind, especially in women’s issues. I wasn’t sure how the subject would be approached. But this museum incorporates all the issues and makes them relevant.”
After walking through the museum, Ms. Lim says, “We talk about the achievement of women, but there’s a long way to go.”
Hopefully, with efforts spearheaded by women like Ms. Moon and the staff at the plaza, more achievements are on the way.
by Joe Yong-hee
The hall is open Tuesday to Sunday. The plaza’s Web site is at www.seoulwomen.or.kr, which is available in English. Call (02) 824-3085 for more information.