Relics of life of the royal family have a new homeThirty-five years of Japanese occupation of Korea have left deeper wounds than the length of time might suggest.
It took 82 years from the fall of the Joseon Dynasty for the vast collections of royal artifacts to be assembled in a state-run museum.
In 1992, the Cultural Heritage Administration, the government body that oversees the country’s historical relics, built the nation’s first royal museum, a two-story building on the grounds of Deoksu Palace that focused some attention on the royal life of the Joseon Dynasty, but it wasn't spacious enough to store all the delicate pieces of arts and crafts that had been scattered around the country for decades.
But, 13 years later, the artifacts have finally found a home in the National Palace Museum, which opens Monday in the former National Museum of Korea in Gyeongbok Palace. And the collections on display are eye opening.
They bring together remarkable examples of royal arts and crafts, many of which had been stolen and dispersed throughout the country and abroad by Japan toward the end of the dynasty in an effort to eradicate traces of the Joseon reign.
Luckily, many of the artifacts are in fairly good condition. But a few others, like traditional embroideries, which have been severely damaged by poor maintenance, are reproductions.
There are artifacts providing evidence of the colonial past.
The wooden doorplates from a palace building, which were among the first items to be removed by the colonial regime as a symbol of the fall of the dynasty, are part of the museum’s collection of royal architecture. The section also includes a wooden model artists used to produce sculptures of guardian animals installed along the stairways leading up to the main palace buildings.
The museum also has in its possession an archive of maps, drawings, daily utensils, furniture, accessories and garments worn by the royal family.
One of the most stunning pieces on display is a closet lacquered in red and inlaid with mother of pearl.
Another entire section is devoted to court paintings by some of the most prominent artists of the time. Faces that appear on “eojin,” or kings’ portraits, typically produced by leading artists, are so refined and delicate that it was said one could almost tell the health condition of the kings by the color of the skin on the paintings.
Most of the artistic productions in the museum are of a similar quality. The jewels in glass cases, for example, have a timeless beauty, intricately crafted of gold, coral and, of course, jade.
The exhibit provides a glimpse into the glory nurtured by the Joseon Dynasty, which governed the nation for more than four centuries. Nevertheless, the new name of the museum (it was previously called The Royal Museum,) reveals an uncomfortable side of Korea’s modern history and the tragic fall of the nation’s royal family, which was forcibly assimilated into the Japanese aristocracy during Japan’s occupation from 1910 to 1945.
A substantial part of the collection was donated by Lee Bang-ja, a Japanese princess who was joined in an arranged marriage to Lee Eun, the grandson of King Gojong, as part of the Japanese plan to end the Korean royal family line. This led many experts to mull over the name of the museum before its opening.
“We couldn’t possibly call it an Imperial museum,” said Kim Go-nyeon, a curator of the National Palace Museum. “But it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call it a ‘royal museum’ either if we see the intrusion of the Japanese imperialists into the Korean royal family near the end of the dynasty.”
By 1909, the colonial regime of Japan has already turned Changgyeong Palace, one of the Korea’s four major palaces, into a zoo. The following year, Japan officially annexed Korea. The palace was restored again in the mid-1980s.
by Park Soo-mee
To get to the National Palace Museum, get off at Gyeongbokgung station on line No. 3 and take exit 3. Walk in to the palace grounds, and the museum is on your left. For more information, call 02-3701-7623. Admission to the museum is free until the end of September. It is closed Mondays.