An exhibit on Hunminjeongeum without the artifact itself
The National Hangeul Museum, which is located next to the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan District, central Seoul, has given its Permanent Exhibition Hall a facelift for the first time since the museum’s establishment eight years ago. It reopened to the public last Friday.
The new space is still the main exhibition hall in the museum, in which its main aim is to introduce hangul. However, if the previous permanent exhibit catered more toward families with children, merely scratching the surface of how hangul was created, the newly renovated exhibit takes visitors deeper into what the writing system is and how it was used and transformed the lives of Koreans, using various interactive technologies.
The exhibit is titled “Hunminjeongeum, the Design of a Writing System beyond the Millenia.” The main theme is of course Hunminjeongeum, which is both the name of the original hangul and the manuscript that describes the Korean alphabet system.
Ironically, the manuscript, the only one existing at present, is not in the museum’s collection.
This state-designated national treasure, which is also listed on Unesco’s Memory of the World Register, is privately owned by the Kansong Art Museum. It rarely gets brought before public view, because it is such a valuable cultural heritage. The last time it was showcased was in April 2017 at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in central Seoul during Kansong’s own exhibit. Kansong Museum was located at the DDP from 2014 to 2019.
The existence of the second copy shocked the public in 2008. However, it’s being held hostage by a man named Bae Ik-gi who claims to be its owner, though the court ruled against him in 2011. Its safety is at stake as it was damaged by fire twice and no one but Bae knows its current location.
“We exhibited the real Hunminjeongeum for three days when the museum opened in 2014,” said Kim Mi-mi, the curator of the exhibit. “As it’s a valuable cultural item, we had to follow meticulous steps set by Kansong like getting it insured, having guards and so on just to exhibit it for three days — which was the maximum number of days Kansong allowed it to be showcased. But currently, we could not make a request as the situation of Kansong is a bit unsettled since the passing of its late chairman of the board Jeong Seong-woo [in 2018, who was the eldest son of the foundation’s late founder Jeon Hyeong-pil].”
Then what’s displayed at a Hunminjeongeum exhibit without the real Hunminjeongeum?
“We’ve managed to make full use of other materials and interactive technologies and approached Hunminjeongeum not merely as a text form, but as the root of the Korean alphabet system,” said Kim. “A replica of Hunminjeongeum, which the museum created elaborately with Kansong in 2014 will be displayed as well. Two copies were created and Kansong and the museum decided to keep one each.”
Korea’s much revered King Sejong (1397-1450) created Hunminjeongeum, the writing system, in 1443. Three years later, he published Hunminjeongeum, the manuscript that reveals the purpose and principle of making Hunminjeongeum, the letters and promulgated it to the people of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). In the preface of the manuscript, King Sejong states that he’s created the Korean writing system as “it’s pitiful to see the people using the borrowed Chinese characters that do not even match the Korean language.”
Before King Sejong created the Korean writing system, Korea borrowed Chinese characters from China to write and read. But it wasn’t easy for Koreans, especially the commoners, to learn such difficult and complex writing system that could not even express the Korean language or convey people’s intentions properly. Visitors in the first section can view all 33 pages of the Hunminjeongeum, in acrylic form.
“As we cannot display the real Hunminjeongeum, we decided to recreate the manuscript as an artistic installation,” said Kim. “By installing 33 acrylic panels that each represent the pages in Hunminjeongeum, we hope that visitors can have a unique experience and try to cherish every page of it.”
The original writing system by King Sejong was very simple in shape. A total of 28 letters — a small number compared to the amount of Chinese characters — were invented. Eight basic letters were based on the simple forms of a dot, line and circle while the rest were expanded from the original eight.
A replica version of Kansong’s Hunminjeongeum is on display in this section, next to the Hunminjeongeum Eonhae edition, which is a manuscript that translated some sections of Hunminjeongeum, which were written in Chinese characters, to hangul. This text is not a separately published title but is part of Weorin Seokbo, a collection of Buddhist writings. The original edition was printed in 1459 but the one displayed at the museum, was reprinted in 1568.
“As hangul is the only alphabet in the world whose creation was recorded in a book, we believe it’s important to display Hunminjeongeum in different forms though the original copy is not here,” said Kim.
One of the highlights of an interactive experience for the exhibit is the projection of Sejong Sillok, or the Annals of King Sejong, onto a blank paper book. The sections in the Sejong Sillok that state about the creation of hangul are being projected and visitors can literally turn the pages and feel the texture of the book. Visitors can also touch any of the sentences written in Chinese and a Korean translation will appear next to it, allowing them to understand what it actually says.
There’s also an immersive ultra-wide screen installed in the next room, projecting footage depicting the world without hangul.
“The world before the creation of hangul is portrayed as darkness and the world after it as light,” said Kim. “That’s because the creation of hangul allowed many people to open their eyes up to a whole new world, being able to read, write and express their feelings properly.”
The exhibit also displays some 600 hangul metal movable types that were recently excavated along with 1,000 Chinese character metal types. They were all found in a pot in Insa-dong, central Seoul. These relics will only stay at the exhibit until April 3 and will then be taken into a research lab. Kim believes it won’t be on public view again over the next five years.
“King Sejong’s efforts for a world where everyone could read and write did not stop at simply creating new letters,” said Kim. “King Sejong first proved the efficiency of the letters by writing 125 poems in hangul. After that, he continued to experiment with hangul spelling rules that could more accurately express Korean language and also succeeded in transferring the pronunciations of Chinese characters in hangul.”
Such documents, like Yongbieocheonga, are exhibited in the following sections. When King Sejong invented the new writing system in 1443, he ordered the composition of Yongbieocheonga to test whether the new Korean alphabet could correctly write the Korean language. It includes prayers for the founding and prosperity of the Joseon Dynasty. The original version was published in 1447 and the one on display is a woodblock edition reprinted in 1659.
There are also displays of the first hangul texts, such as a biography of Buddha translated into hangul by Prince Suyang, a compilation of eulogies for Buddha written by King Sejong in hangul and a book outlining the 10 great kindnesses of parents as described by the Buddha translated into Korean. Around the 18th and 19th centuries, efforts to spread various systems and rules through hangul were active in order to prevent people from violating the laws simply because they didn’t understand them well. There’s a Korean translation of a king’s message warning against alcohol, written by King Yeongjo in 1757.
The exhibit continues on to showcase how hangul was used to resolve disputes, help people make appeals, write letters, document teachings of Buddha as well as explain Confucian scriptures.
Toward the end of the exhibit, there’s a heartwarming video of people being interviewed, sharing their experiences of learning hangul. Many elderly women appear in the video saying how they finally found their voice by learning to read and write hangul.
Will the real Hunminjeongeum ever be displayed at the museum’s permanent exhibition hall?
“We hope to, if the situation at Kansong somewhat settles down, we may be able to make an official request,” said Kim from the museum.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [email@example.com]