Giving the past a future: Director opens museum

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Giving the past a future: Director opens museum

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Phones are ringing and his schedule is packed, but Yi Kun-mo seems to be in no hurry. The director of the National Museum of Korea, Mr. Yi, 58, has had a hectic past few days overseeing preparations for the re-opening of the museum at its new site in the Yongsan district of central Seoul. But Mr. Yi is meticulous and composed ahead of Friday’s scheduled opening. Mr. Yi greets employees walking by and even checks their attire. Mr. Yi says he wants to share the pleasure of opening the National Museum of Korea with the Korean people. The JoongAng Ilbo asked him about this historic juncture.

Q. The slogan on the subway says, “You can see Korea at the new National Museum of Korea.”
A. This is the 60th anniversary of Korean independence. I feel deeply emotional about opening the first true home for the National Museum of Korea. This is a historic event for Korean culture. It is a great feeling compared to the sorrow of moving from one place to another since Korea’s liberation in 1945. It was like carrying around the relics that contain the very heart and soul of Korea’s 5,000 years of history. It was a shame on our ancestors. Now we have built a six-story home on land covering 30.72 hectares (76 acres), and are proud because it compares to any other museum around the world.

North Korea’s Korean Central History Museum in Pyongyang celebrates its 60th anniversary on Dec. 1. Is there a plan for exchanging relics?
We tried to contact the museum in North Korea, but we gave up. The plan to invite the museum’s director Kim Song-hyon came to nothing. It could have been a good opportunity for the two museums, but it was not as easy as we had hoped. It would have been the perfect cultural exchange for North Korea and South Korea to share relics with each other. However, I am in discussions with curators about making small moves on this in the future.

The total floor space is 134,214 square meters with 45 permanent exhibition halls, two special exhibition halls and three reserved halls, as well as a museum for children. The total number of relics and artifacts available for exhibit are 11,000. It seems impossible to see them all even over a few days.
We estimated that it would take about 11 hours to walk casually around the halls. One day would be too short to see everything. I hope that people do not say, “Since the museum is open, let’s have a look for a day.”
A museum is not a place that people are done with after spending just one day. Most of all, the National Museum of Korea has a great natural environment, performance halls and restaurants. I hope that people will not be greedy and try to look around it all in one day. I would rather want them to come by more often and, for example, go to the History Hall one day and the Asian Gallery the next day, then to the Children’s Museum next month and a performance afterwards. In the winter, we are going to open a “winter pond” in front of the museum, which will be open for children’s ice-skating. The library is great as well and should not be missed.

It is finally opening after eight years of construction. I am sure there were agonizing days.
I spent sleepless nights when the issue on moving the U.S. army helicopter landing pads was not resolved. Not to mention that it was a promise to the public. If they hadn’t moved by the winter there would have been more problems with the construction process.
In addition, I was worried that there could be accidents when transferring the relics, and this gave me more gray hair. I was so cautious that if I had a bad dream, I made sure that packing for transfers was inspected two or three times before moving, or sometimes I delayed the transfer if it was a major project. I am more ready for criticism than praise after the opening. I am in the director’s position at such an important time, and the opening is going smoothly. It was worth having worked in museums for my entire life.

What direction will the new National Museum of Korea take?
In the past, museums focused on excavations and research, but these days they concentrate on exhibitions and education. To go with that trend, we divided the former exhibition team into exhibition, public relations and education teams. We will see what happens over the next few years, but there is no change in the fundamental philosophy that the museum will be developed in line with public demand. How the National Museum is doing translates to how many people visit the museum and how much they enjoy it.

Mr. Yi was born in 1947 and studied archeological anthropology at Seoul National University. He received a masters degree in the same discipline from Hanyang University and a doctorate from Korea University with a thesis on Korea’s bronze sword culture. After graduation, Mr. Yi started working as a curator at the National Museum, then moved to the Gyeongju National Museum. He was a director at the Gwangju National Museum and then head curator at the National Museum before being promoted to his current position.


by Ahn Seong-sik
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