A museum heads for its new home

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A museum heads for its new home

Moving into a new home generally requires a lot of work. But imagine having to transport a steel sculpture that weighs more than six tons. Or how about keeping track of 100,000 artifacts spanning Korea’s 5,000-year history?
That is the circumstance facing the National Museum of Korea, which is taking a one-year hiatus to move into its new permanent quarters in the Yongsan district of central Seoul. The new building is scheduled to open in October 2005.
The scope of the project is enormous. The relocation involves the transfer of 99,622 items, including 6,300 on permanent exhibition and seven items registered as “national treasures,” from the museum’s old home on the grounds of Gyeongbok Palace to a brand-new concrete building with steel-framed glass windows.
The move began in April with the transfer of pieces held in storage, while the permanent exhibition items are now in the process of being moved, following the closing of the old museum on Oct. 18.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, curators say, is moving 19 pieces that weigh more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds), including a steel female Buddha statue that stands 2.8 meters (9.2 feet) tall and weighs 6.2 tons. To move some of these objects out of the old museum, the walls of the exhibition halls had to be demolished.
To prevent damage to the valuable relics, the museum has been paying careful attention to detail. The bulkiest Buddha statue was first wrapped in “neutral” ― non-acid and non-alkaline ― paper, then covered with cotton padding and cloth. It was then placed in a specially designed wooden box containing shock-absorbing material. Moisture-proof material was also put in the box to prevent dampness from affecting the sculpture.
A crane weighing more than 150 tons was used to lift the statue onto a truck equipped with special shock absorbers. Then, escorted by armed personnel and two police cars in the front and rear, the truck traveled through the streets with its precious cargo at a slow speed of 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) an hour.
It was not only the Buddha statue that was pampered; all the artifacts are being treated with similar care.
“The issue we have taken most seriously is safety,” said Park Jin-woo, a curator at the National Museum of Korea, who is in charge of packing and moving the relics. “We aim to move every item without damage, within the designated time.”
As might be expected, all of the relics have been insured. “The artifacts are not something that can be manufactured in large numbers. They are all original,” Mr. Park added. “They existed for hundreds or even thousands of years and are very fragile.”
“Unlike collections in other countries, a large portion of the collections in Korea have been excavated from tombs,” said Yun Jong-gyun, another curator at the national museum.
Mr. Park said that the different shapes and sizes of the artifacts has added to the difficulty in packing and moving the items. The transfer so far has involved 100 curators and 490 trips by trucks that can carry loads of up to five tons. The massive task of packing was left in the hands of the highly experienced curators. At least 40 to 50 curators were engaged in packing every day except weekends and national holidays.
“It was strenuous work. We kept on standing and working for five to six hours straight,” Mr. Park said. “Some of the curators called the work a ‘moving diet’ because they lost 5 to 6 kilograms.”
All items have to be labeled, and information on the contents of the boxes is recorded for security reasons before the boxes are sealed. When the boxes are reopened upon arrival at the new museum, workers check whether the listed items match what is inside the boxes. The packing, moving, labeling and unpacking of each item usually is done within three days.
Because of a series of similar transfers made over the decades, some museum officials gripe that part of their job as curator includes being a packer and mover.
The method of packing and moving the artifacts and the decision on the personnel who would be responsible for the job was discussed well before the actual transfer began. “We spent the last two years in preparing for the move,” Mr. Yun said.
This is not the first time in its history that the museum has relocated. In fact, since it was formed nearly 60 years ago, the museum has moved a number of times.
The first national museum opened in a building on Mount Namsan in Seoul in 1945, when Korea achieved independence from Japan, but the collection had to make the long journey to Busan when the Korean War broke out in 1950.
After the war ended, it settled back in the building on Mount Namsan in 1953, and moved in 1965 to what is now the National Museum of Art at the Deoksu Palace. In 1972, a new museum building was constructed inside the Gyeongbok Palace grounds, which is now the home of the National Folk Museum of Korea.
In 1986, the museum moved to the former Japanese colonial administration building at Gyeongbok Palace, but the Kim Young-sam administration decided to demolish the building, which was seen as a symbol of Japanese imperialism, and to build a new museum in Yongsan. The demolition began in August 1995, and the museum moved to a building that belongs to the Cultural Heritage Administration on the grounds of the palace.
Despite the frequent moves in the past, the current transfer is unprecedented, both in scale and distance, since some of the previous moves involved trips of no more than several hundred meters. “The size of the collection as well as the number of employees has increased significantly,” Mr. Park said.
The transfer of the artifacts is still under way. While the move of large items and those in storage has largely been completed, the transfer of stone relics displayed outside the museum will begin in March.
The construction of the new museum is nearly complete, but there is still a lot of work to be done, including the interior design of the exhibition halls, which are more than twice the size of those in the old building, as well as the arrangement of the artifacts in the galleries.
“Until now, the national museum had to move around to existing buildings, but for the first time the national museum will have a permanent home,” Mr. Park said.

by Limb Jae-un
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