One man, one museum, 500,000 artifacts

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One man, one museum, 500,000 artifacts

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Lee Woo-ro started his museum of just about everything when he was a reporter in his 20s. By Choi Jeong-dong

He’s living proof of the old saying “no pain, no gain.” After a very long road and years of collecting, 83-year-old Lee Woo-ro, a retired reporter, is close to the finish line of a long race to realizing his dream of establishing a mammoth museum village. And he won’t stop until he’s reached the end of his journey

Lee has collected 500,000 artifacts ranging from medical devices to musical instruments, and given them all homes in an elementary school in Yeoju County, Gyeonggi, that had been closed since 1999.

Lee first decided that he needed a retirement plan when he was working as a reporter in his 20s. And he set a goal for it: establish a museum.

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A handmade clock made in France under King Louis XVII, far left, and the first portable television, made in the United States.

“I knew I could never make it like the British Museum. So I thought I would collect anything I found,” Lee said.

As soon as he formulated that tentative plan, he embarked on collecting artifacts.

He started with medical microscopes.

“I think I wanted to do something medical to pay tribute to my father, who was a doctor,” said Lee. The range of his collection soon expanded to include every little piece that makes up a microscope, with a variety of lenses becoming an exhibit in and of itself.

Lee then started scouting for medical devices of all sorts. The first operating table brought to Korea during the Korean War by Scandinavian medical teams came into his possession.

The collection cost him a fortune.

“It’s my way of giving back what I earned through my life to the society I belong to,” said Lee, who even sold his restaurant and depleted his inheritance to establish his museum.

To list a just a few of the items he acquired, he owns the first English typewriter manufactured in 1892, a Guarneri violin made in the 18th century, and drums that were used in the opening ceremony of 1988 Seoul Olympics. Even the last phonograph Thomas Edison ever made is in Lee’s possession.

“I spent all my inheritance, but I never regretted what I did,” said Lee.

When you compare the size of Lee’s collection to the 15,000 artifacts owned by the National Museum of Korea, it’s an eye-opener.

“I pick items that seem to be disappearing, especially electronics. As technology develops, old analog products will soon become hard to find,” said Lee.

His plans for the museum village grew more specific as he collected more items. He amassed out-of-date electronics to give young students surrounded by cutting-edge technology a chance to study what came before.

“Korea is known for its IT, and our scientists have earned this fame. By playing with various electronics, I thought youngsters would have a chance to realize their potential in science,” said Lee, adding that he now dreams of establishing an experience center at the museum.

“It’s more important to have museums or experience centers away from the metropolis. There are already more than enough museums in Seoul. I want to give local children a better chance to experience science. In fact, our visitors are mainly from elementary schools in Gangwon, Daegu and even Jeju,” said Lee.

It was the Yeoju local government office that first invited Lee to open a museum village in its region 10 years ago. It promised to provide enough space to let him build - and fill - 20 different museums. But as governors changed, the bureaucratic process slowed down, and approval of some buildings stalled.

Still, seven museums are open, and together they’re called the Hanul Themed Museum.

“The old Seoul Subway’s line No. 1 trains that I bought to display around the museum are now a museum themselves. Since there is limited space in each train car, artifacts are clustered together,” said Lee.

He still has a long way to go. He’s managed to get all his artifacts together in Yeoju County, but they still need to be sorted out and displayed in logical categories.

“I wish I had someone to take over this project. I think my time is running out,” said Lee. “I’m willing to give groups of themed artifacts to various local governing offices, to have several museums or experience centers in diverse regions all over the nation.”

After more than 60 years of struggling to realize his dream, Lee’s journey will stretch in front of him until he finds homes for each and every artifact he owns.

“I’m going to spend every minute here in this school base until the work is done,” he said.

Admission is 5,000 won ($4.15) for adults and 3,000 won for small children and students. Groups of 20 or more will receive discount admission of 3,000 for adults and 2,000 won for small children and students. Reservations are required. Call (031)881-6319.


By Lee Kyong-hee, Lee Sun-min [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]
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