National Museum of Korea aims to immerse visitors in new permanent exhibit
The National Museum of Korea in central Seoul has remodeled an exhibition hall on the second floor, which used to be the location of a permanent hall for donated works. In this new 439-square-meter (4,725 square feet) room, about the same size of a small theater, only two artifacts are on display: the famous pensive bodhisattvas, also known as Maitreyas in meditation.
The two pensive bodhisattvas, each designated as a national treasure, have finally come together, sitting side-by-side, permanently. It was one of the pledges of the museum’s Director-General Min Byoung-chan after taking office late last year. He promised to create a permanent hall dedicated to the two pensive bodhisattvas, hoping they could become the representative artifacts of the museum and attract visitors from across the globe.
“Like the ‘Mona Lisa’ at the Louvre,” said Min. “I hope this permanent exhibition will make the museum a must-visit for international tourists to Korea.”
The two bodhisattvas have rarely been displayed together. Instead the museum had been exhibiting one bodhisattva at a time, allowing the other one to go into storage or be exhibited overseas. There’s only been three special exhibitions that displayed the two bodhisattvas together since the museum’s establishment, the latest of which was in 2015.
The new exhibition hall, which opens to the public from tomorrow, is named the “Room of Quiet Contemplation.” For the new hall, the museum said it has used “a completely new way of displaying these pensive bodhisattvas, breaking away from conventional methods.”
The museum has worked with Choi Wook, head architect at One O One Architects to create this unprecedented space in the museum. It also marks the museum’s first project in collaboration with an architect.
The highlight of Choi’s design is the tilted walls with round corners and a slightly inclined floor and ceiling with a 1 percent slope.
“This is to maximize the viewing experience,” said Choi during a press conference held Thursday, a day before the official opening of the space. “I told the museum that the optimal size I needed for these two statues would be the size of a small theater. By placing the statues at the vanishing point created by the slope of the floor and the ceiling, it creates an immersive experience for the visitors.”
The highest point of the room, which is at the entrance, measures 4.5 meters from floor to ceiling and the lowest, where the two relics are located, measures 3.7 meters.
“The tilts and the slopes are not that large so visitors won’t recognize them unless they pay attention. Making this change feel very subtle was our intention so that the visitors can focus on quietly contemplating in the optimal atmosphere,” said Lee Hyun-sook, a designer who took part in creating the new room.
The exhibition begins with a dark corridor-like space, where visitors will encounter a media artwork projection by French filmmaker Jean-Julien Pous. The video titled “Cycle” attempts to show the cycle of materials that surround us like water and the stars in the universe. Pous also worked on the animation of the statues that is displayed at the exit of the exhibition hall.
Shin So-yeon, the curator of the exhibit said this entranceway is a “transitional space where visitors gradually become accustomed to the darkness. After about three or four minutes of watching the video, visitors will be guided to enter the main gallery to encounter the bodhisattvas.”
As visitors walk into the main gallery of the pensive bodhisattvas, they’ll notice a unique scent of earth and cinnamon. It comes from the reddish-brown walls, “which have been created using environmentally friendly materials such as charcoal, cinnamon, soil and lacquer,” Shin added.
“We’ve also paid a lot of attention to the lighting so that it can fully convey the beauty and aesthetic value of the statues and help visitors immerse themselves in their appreciation.”
Shin describes this experience of focusing on the inner thoughts and stories that naturally come to mind as a “journey of contemplation.”
To make sure visitors can create their own stories guided by the architectural design that is connected closely with the concept of the exhibition, information panels and labels have been kept to a minimum. Visitors who want to learn more can scan a QR code printed at the entrance. Information is provided in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese.
Shin also added that the museum will limit the number of people inside the room to about 30 at a time, but added that it’s best to visit the museum during not-so-busy days or hours so that you can become “fully immersed.”
“We also hope visitors can pay attention to the benign smiles on the two bodhisattvas,” said Shin. “That smile is the exact facial expression at the moment of realization after a deep meditation. The museum hopes this space can offer consolation and healing as well as astonishment thanks to the remarkable accomplishments of the casting techniques from 1,400 years ago.”
Director-General Min said that even many Koreans confuse the two statues despite them being highly valuable treasures.
“The museum hopes that this exhibit can allow people to learn about the differences and similarities between the two and appreciate their beauty,” said Min.
To celebrate the new exhibition hall, the cultural foundation of the National Museum of Korea has produced different-colored miniatures of the pensive bodhisattva statues. The museum had produced a miniature of one of the pensive bodhisattvas, which gained huge popularity and sold out after it was spotted in a photograph shared by BTS member RM. It was sitting on his desk in the background.
On Thursday morning, even before the exhibit opened, some young female visitors queued up to purchase the statues as soon as they went on sale at the museum shop. The statue costs 49,000 won ($41.60) each.
The exhibit begins on Friday and will stay at the museum permanently. Admission is free.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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