Images offer a look inside tragic imperial family

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Images offer a look inside tragic imperial family


Photos of King Gojong (left) and Crown Prince Sunjong (middle) are in possession of the Smithsonian and have never been exhibited. What may be the first photograph King Gojong (right) was taken in 1884.

One of the best ways to learn about a family - their history, what’s important to them, cherished moments, and so on - is to browse through their photo albums or the pictures on their walls.

The imperial family of the Korean Empire (1897-1910), also known as Daehan Empire, had little to laugh about, and photos of them that are scattered all around the world today are a testament to their dynasty’s short reign and tragic fall.

Sandwiched between calls for opening its doors to the world and accepting modern ideas and inventions and the need to protect national sovereignty as Japan’s encroachment threatened the fate of the 500-year-old Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), they declared their state an empire and themselves emperors and empresses. History shows, however, that establishing an empire did little to alter their fate.

The photo exhibition that began last Friday at the National Museum of Art, Deoksugung, is a somber look inside the troubled lives of the imperial family of the Korean Empire.

Grim faces reflect tormented minds; awkward poses in modern clothes against traditional backdrops convey the tension of the time; and controversies stemming from inaccurate and inconsistent captions reflect the confusion that gripped the nation and its people.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, which runs the museum, and the Museum of Photography, Seoul, sifted through their imperial family photographs, like those of King Gojong (1852-1919), whom many historians are trying to rediscover nowadays; Crown Prince Yeongchin (1897-1970) who grew up in the hands of the Japanese, which led many to shed light on his identity crisis; and Princess Deokhye (1912-1989), whose tragic life saddened many.

The museum also sought help from other museums in Korea and around the world, including the National Museum of Korea, Sookmyung Women’s University Museum, the Smithsonian Institution and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The result is “Photographs of the Daehan Imperial Family,” an exhibit that showcases about 200 photos of the family.

“Unlike other photo exhibitions where photos are digitalized and shown larger, we decided to stick to the originals and display them as they are,” said Sabin Lee, one of the curators, at a press event on Nov. 15.


From left: Prince Euichin, King Gojong’s son; Yi Woo, Prince Euichin’s son; Park Chan-ju, Yi Woo’s wife; Princess Deokhye’s wedding in 1931; and Crown Prince Yeongchin and his wife in 1921. Provided by the organizer

The exhibition consists of two parts in chronological order: from 1880, the years leading up to birth of the Korean Empire, to the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, and the descendents of the imperial family, from 1910 to 1989.

In the first part, there are photos of King Gojong and his son, Crown Prince Sunjong, given to Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, when she visited Korea in 1905. The photos are currently in possession of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian and had never been displayed in an exhibition.

It was David Hogge, head of archives at the gallery, who found out about the existence of the photos and got them from the granddaughter of Alice Roosevelt, who kept them in her basement unaware of their significance.

“It was by accident, almost, or extreme good fortune that we acquired those,” Hogge said of his discovery three years ago while doing research for another exhibition.

The exhibition also displays three photos presumed to be Gojong’s wife - Queen Min (1861-1895), also known as Empress Myeongseong. While some historians have argued they are certainly the photo of the queen, who was the powerful political figure seeking an alliance with Russia as a way to fight off the Japanese, most say it’s highly unlikely because the wardrobe and hairstyle in the photos were inappropriate for a queen.

Also, experts like Choi Bong-lim, director of the Museum of Photography, Seoul, also points to the political situation. “Photography was introduced in Korea in the early 1880s,” he says. “But Queen Min was under constant assassination threats from the 1882 Imo Mutiny onward. So it’s highly unlikely that she would pose in front of the camera and reveal herself to her potential enemies.” The queen was murdered by Japanese assassins in 1895.

“Besides the photographs, we have also displayed postcards, newspaper articles and other documents that either carry the photos or help explain the situation of the time,” added curator Lee. “The exhibition is both an exhibition of photos of Korean history and an exhibition on the history of photos in Korea.”

By Kim Hyung-eun []

* The exhibition runs to Jan. 13. Admission is 4,000 won ($3.69). The museum is near the City Hall Station, line No. 1, exit 2. It is closed on Monday. For more information, visit or call 2022-0600.

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