A museum 50 years in the making

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A museum 50 years in the making

On one side of Mount Gyeryong, in South Chungcheong province, one man’s dream of half a century has finally been realized, in the form of three stories of white granite and marble.
The Gyeryongsan Natural History Museum, which opened Sept. 21, has no board of directors, no fund-raising committee. It exists solely because of the will of 83-year-old ophthalmologist Rhee Ki-seok.
“I was always interested in science but disappointed that there were so few science museums in Korea. In fact, among all OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) member countries, Korea has the fewest number of natural science museums. So 50 years ago, I began collecting scientific artifacts with plans to establish a museum some day,” he said.
Mr. Rhee may be an eye surgeon, but he is a businessman at heart, and he turned that skill into something that could fund his dream. He not only founded a large ophthalmology clinic in Daejeon, but also the Daejeon Health Science College.
In 1977, he established a museum study department in the college to raise future specialists. “To run a museum, you need people who know how to handle artifacts,” he said.
He spent 46.1 billion won ($40 million) of mainly his own money, which came from hospital earnings and real estate holdings, among other private investments. His family had to share in the dream as well ― he even mortgaged his son’s apartment.
Despite the huge amount of money he’s put up, it’s worth it for the greater good, he said.
“The reason no one in Korea has won a Nobel Prize in science yet is because children are in a way forced to study science. I hope this museum can become a playground for children so they can take interest in science naturally,” he said.
Besides the financial hurdles, Mr. Rhee encountered resistance from environmental groups.
“Civic group protests delayed construction for about a year. They said it would destroy the scenic views and that nature should be preserved,” Mr. Rhee recalled. “I agree that nature should be preserved, but leaving it as it is isn’t preservation.”
He pointed out the handful of motels that were situated along the road between the museum and the main road. “Apparently, developing motels is okay and museums are not.”
Politics complicated things further. The museum is located in Gongju, practically skimming the boundaries of Daejeon, its more affluent neighbor. Daejeon, however, was not easy to deal with ― in the beginning, the city wouldn’t allow street signs pointing visitors to the museum. After several years of negotiations, Daejeon allowed a couple of signs on side roads near the museum.
As chief curator for the museum, Mr. Rhee’s passion almost exhausts the other workers. A few weeks ago, before the museum’s grand opening, he continuously walked around from one exhibition to the next throughout the day to see that everything was running smoothly. He bounced as he walked, as if he had springs attached to his soles.
On his sixth round of the day, he paused in front of a tank that contains small sharks. “There’s not enough oxygen,” he said, counting the air bubbles. He picked up his cell phone and made a quick call to assistant curator Cho Han-hee.
“We need another filter,” he told her. “And by the way, the floor here should be waxed in red.”
Ms. Cho, 51, is his daughter-in-law, another member of the family who’s been enlisted in helping Mr. Rhee in his goal. After her marriage to Mr. Rhee’s son, Ms. Cho, who studied geology in college, was supported by Mr. Rhee to study museum management in the United States and Japan. It was all part of his long-term vision to put her at the head of his dream museum.
The Gyeryongsan Natural History Museum is nothing like the Smithsonian Institution, but it has its own collection of rare artifacts. Greeting visitors in the first floor main hall is Gyeryongee, a Brachiosaurus from the Jurassic age. The gigantic plant-eater, standing at 16 meters (52 feet) tall and 25 meters long, has made a long journey from Wisconsin, where it was dug up by a team of archeologists led by Kansas University professor and paleontologist Larry Martin, who were supported by Mr. Rhee.
“People said I was crazy when I invested tens of millions of dollars in the excavation since the possibilities of anything being discovered were so low,” Mr. Rhee said. “I was really lucky though. Not only did scientists find this dinosaur, they recovered 85 percent of it.
“Apparently, it’s very rare to find any dinosaur skeletons so well-preserved. The archeologists said that Gyeryongee here must have drowned in a bog and his bones were packed in with the mud. A lot of museums in the United States offered me four or five times the price of what I invested but I brought him here.”
Other interesting showcases include a mammoth skeleton from the Ural Mountains, a 146-kilogram (321 pound) meteorite, a Korean mummy from the early Joseon period, and a stuffed cave bear, one of the four remaining specimens in the world.
The rest of the museum is more comprehensive, covering all areas of natural science on a general level: rocks and precious stones, planets, birds, insects, the human body, etc.
Although he has got the museum started, Mr. Rhee is worried about how he will keep it going. Maintenance costs such as electricity and manpower add up to about 100 million won a month. Also, unlike art galleries, museums are not eligible for tax breaks.
Ever the businessman, he already has some ideas.
“I don’t know when I’m going to die, but before I do, I’ll have to think of other profit-making businesses that will keep the museum alive. One is hosting weddings here. In Western countries, many people like to get married at museums. The roof is especially nice because you have a view of the mountains and the valley,” he said.

by Wohn Dong-hee

The Gyeryongsan Natural History Museum is open daily, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets cost 9,000 won for adults and 4,000 won to 6,000 won for children. Groups can get a 10-percent discount.
For more information, call the museum at (042) 820-7622 or visit the Web site at www.krnamu.or.kr (Korean only).
The museum is 2.5 hours outside of Seoul by car. Go toward the Donghaksa Temple side of Mount Gyeryong and follow the signs to the museum. Buses to Donghaksa Temple depart frequently from major bus terminals and train stations in Daejeon.
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