A quick look at the last few millennia

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A quick look at the last few millennia

Its basic statistics alone are impressive: 11,000 artifacts on show over an exhibition space of 26,781 square meters (28,288 square yards), a building 404 meters long and made out of yellow limestone in the shape of a Korean walled fortress (or so the museum claims) lording over 307,227 square meters of land, 59 “national treasures” and 79 “treasures,” and one Greek hoplite’s helmet from the 6th century BC.
With a collection like that, it might be hard to believe the National Museum of Korea was homeless for 60 years.
It is homeless no longer, and in a big way. Today the museum opens its doors at its new location in Yongsan, central Seoul, on the former site of a helicopter landing pad for the US Army. Having moved six times since Korea gained its independence in 1945, the museum is now and perhaps forever nestled along the banks of the Han River, with its back to the Namsan and Inwang mountains.
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It is an appropriately Korean site for a display of millennia of culture incarnated in the form of sculptures, paintings, documents, pottery, ornaments, arms and armor, and other artifacts and relics. The west wing of the building houses offices, a library, a children’s museum and an auditorium, and the longer east wing is reserved for halls for permanent exhibitions. The large open space in the middle, where the main entrance is located, is modeled after the vestibules in Korean houses, which are roofed but have no walls.
After gliding though the main entrance, visitors can enter the museum through a vast round hall surrounded by a glass wall. On the right side is the concierge, at whose desk personal digital assistants (PDA) and audio players can be rented, for 3,000 won ($2.88) and 1,000 won, respectively.

Past the round entrance is a long hall titled the Path of History, which extends to the end of the east wing. The path includes the “Lantern with Two Lions” and “Ten-story Pagoda,” two sculptures from the Goryeo Dynasty. The gray marble pagoda, which stands 13 meters, used to sit in Gyeongbok Palace. The sculpture is covered with engravings depicting the Buddha delivering a sermon, but exposure to the elements seriously damaged it, and the refurbished statue will be kept inside from now on. Also on show is the Bukgwan Daecheopbi, a monument erected in commemoration of an earlier a victory against Japanese invaders 400 years ago. The big stone slab used to sit in a corner of the Yasukuni Shrine, until a South Korean visitor noticed it and alerted the government. Japan returned the monument to Korea last week.
The museum is divided into six galleries: archeology, history, Korean art I, Korean art II, Asian art and donor galleries. Each floor has two galleries, located on each side of the long hall. The history, Asian and donor galleries will feature pieces that the museum has never shown before. The museum is also rolling out never-before seen works of calligraphy, Buddhist painting, wooden crafts, and historic items from Balhae, Nangnang (ancient Chinese-occupied Korea), China, Japan and Central Asia.
- The archeological gallery contains artifacts ranging from the Paleolithic to Balhae periods (to 926 AD). Among the highlights of the gallery are gold ornaments such as earrings, belts, caps and crowns from Gaya, Baekje and Silla kingdoms and tiles with beast and goblin engravings from the Unified Silla Kingdom.
The “Bronze Bell with Clapper” features a bell attached by eight rods to an octagonal bronze sheet and was used in religious rituals. The “Bronze Ritual Artifact” has engravings depicting farming life, a fascinating look at average life in the period. Also featured are comb-patterned pottery representative of Neolithic times.
The “Tile with Landscape Design” from the Baekje Dynasty and the “Baekje Incense Burner,” have delicate carvings of mountain peaks, trees, rocks and animals on a lotus-shaped burner sitting on dragon. “Horse Rider” and “Vessel Servants,” the two ceramic pieces, were used in rituals. There are also replicas of murals found in Goguryeo’s ancient tombs near Pyongyang, in North Korea.
- The history gallery has old documents and maps, but don’t pass up the original copies of documents in Huminjeongeum, the predecessor to hangul, conveniently located in the Hangul Room.
Letters written in hangul exchanged between King Hyeonjong and his daughter Princess Myeongan indicate that the Korean alphabet was used in the court, counter to the belief that hangul was looked down upon by the aristocracy.
The “Darani Sutra” is the world’s oldest existing woodblock print, found in the three-story pagoda in Bulguk Temple in Gyeonggju, the capital of the Silla Kingdom.
The “Stele Built to Honor the Expedition of Silla King Jinheung,” found on Mount Bukhan, was erected to commemorate Silla’s expansion during the Three Kingdom Period.
The “Long Sword of Admiral Yi Sun-sin” stands at 1.97 meters, inscribed with the words, “One swing sweeps away [the enemy] and the mountain and river are drenched with blood.”
“The Map of Korea” made in 1864 by Kim Jeong-ho and the “Complete Map of the Eastern Country” produced in the 17th century is worthy of attention. The latter was the first map to provide military information for the northeastern border. There is a tile-made replica of the map on the floor.
Made in 1390 during the late Goryeo Dynasty, the “Family Register” of Yi Seong-gye, founder of the Joseon Dynasty, contains information on his position, family members, servants and property.
- On the second floor, the donor’s gallery has collections from over nine patrons. This includes the Greek bronze helmet, mentioned earlier, given as a gift to the 1936 Berlin Olympic marathon gold medallist Sohn Kee-chung.
- The Korean art gallery on the second floor has folk paintings, Buddhist paintings, calligraphy and lacquer ware. Genre paintings by the Joseon Dynsasty artist Kim Hong-do, a master of the style, are one of the biggest attractions in this part of the gallery. He was fond of painting people across all segments of society in a realistic and humorous way, especially common people at festivals. Beside the paintings is the “Album of Paintings of Women,” folk paintings by Shin Yun-bok.
- The Korean art gallery II on the third floor has Buddhist sculptures, metal arts and ceramics, as well as what is perhaps the biggest art attraction in the museum at the entrance of the gallery: a Goryeo Dynasty bronze bell found in Cheonheung Temple.
Further in are Buddhist sculpture rooms that have two stone-made Buddha statues from Gamsan Temple, “Maitreya Bodhisattva” and “Amitabha Buddha Stone,” and Amitabha Buddha, a statue made from pure gold, both from the Unified Silla period.
The “Pensive Bodhisattva” of the 7th century Unified Silla Dynasty is famous for its three-dimensional rendering and more lifelike images than other Bodhisattva statues. It rests with its hand on its chin and its right leg laying over its left.
Displayed in the ceramic room is the famous Goryeo Dynasty blue celadon, and Buncheong jar and white celadon from Joseon Dynasty. The beauty of Goryeo pottery lies in the balance of its shape and graceful curves with little adornment.
The blue celadon “Maebyeong,” with its lotus scroll design, is famous for its nearly perfect curvature and color.
The 12th-century “Lobed-Bottle” vase is representative of Goryeo Dynasty blue celadon for its shape, balance and blue glaze. Above its ripe melon-shaped body sits a crafted blossom at the tip of its long neck.
A Joseon Dynasty jar made from white porcelain and designed in an underglaze iron-brown in the shape of a monkey captures the eye with its elegant curves and striking shape.
- The Asian gallery features Indian, Indo-Chinese, Central Asian, Chinese, Nangnang, Sinan and Japanese arts. The Central Asian works were collected by an excavation team led by the Japanese archaelogist Kozui Otani, who created the Otani Collection, but the team left the artifacts in Korea after its independence from Japan. The artifacts from Nangnang were also kept by a Japanese museum before Korea’s independence.
Included in the collection is a gold buckle, made in the 1st century AD, which has a handful of small gold beads, threads and blue jade pieces attached to the thin gold plate.
The Sinan room displays artifacts discovered in 1970 in a wrecked merchant ship of the Won Dynasty found in the Yellow Sea near South Jeolla province. The ship contained hundreds of blue celadon wares and coins.

Along with the very old, there’s also the new: the museum offers state-of-the-art PDAs and audio players, which use infrared sensors to provide information about whatever object the user is standing in front of. The PDAs also help guide visitors around the halls, and suggests 12 tour courses, such as the 100 must-see artifacts for visitors in a hurry and four different courses for families with children.


by Limb Jae-un

The museum opens at 2 p.m. today, but normally the museum will be open from 9 a.m. through 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and until 7 p.m. on weekends and holidays. It is closed on Mondays, except this coming Monday. Admission is free until the end of the year. The museum can be reached from exit 2 at Ichon Station on subway lines No. 4 and No. 1. For more information, visit www.museum.go.kr.
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