Exhibition of North’s cultural heritageThey are treasures of Korea, but most Koreans have only seen them in photographs in high school textbooks.
Perhaps it’s not even what is in this exhibit that matters so much. It was a historic event in itself when the heads of the two most powerful museums in Korea shook hands, agreeing to allow precious artifacts from Pyongyang to cross the border for the first time since the two Koreas were divided more than 50 years ago. The works were transferred via Mount Kumgang earlier this year.
By any evaluation, “Cultural Heritage from North Korea; National Treasures from Pyongyang” ― the first joint exhibit by state-run museums in North and South Korea ― is a meaningful event. It has also set a smooth precedent for any future exchanges between two powerhouses of Korean history.
A total of 90 artifacts are on display at Seoul’s National Museum of Korea, including some of the most coveted treasures from the Central History Museum in Pyongyang ― from pre-historic antiquities to modern day collections.
The works on display afford a revealing look into the history of ancient Korea that before now was only partly available to South Korean audiences. The selection includes the oldest extant metal print type from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). There are only two metal types of the same word available from the period. The other is part of the permanent collection of the National Museum of Korea.
Another notable piece is a bronze statue of Wang Gun, founder of the Goryeo Kingdom, which was excavated in 1992 from the king’s tomb in Kaesong. It took some time for the identity of the statue to be confirmed, as it was originally thought by Korean scholars to be a bronze statue of Buddha. The statue has never been shown publicly in North Korea.
A bone flute made out of a leg bone of a bird during the Bronze Age and dated at around 2000 B.C. is believed to be the oldest musical instrument found in Korea.
The exhibit also includes an inscribed stone from the Pyongyang Fortress, the world’s largest fortress when it was built 1500 years ago, statues of Buddha, paintings by noted painters from the Joseon Dynasty and religious crafts.
A compelling comparison in the exhibit is provided by popular mainstream paintings from both Pyongyang and Seoul during the early 20th Century. The works from the two capitals show notable traits, with Pyongyang artists symbolizing tradition while Seoul’s experimented in color and form. The trend continued after the country’s division, the exhibit explains, and subtly evolved into ideological battles, split between the notions of nationalism and capitalism.
by Park Soo-mee
“Cultural Heritage from North Korea” runs through Aug. 16 at the National Museum of Korea. The exhibit will also travel to Daegu from Aug. 29 to Oct. 26.