I’ve been meaning to write about our visit to the National Museum of Korea. Until now, I haven’t had much time to sit down and do the research necessary to write about the museum. The museum’s new, permanent home opened one month ago near Yongsan Family Park in the Yongsan District of Seoul. I went with my son a couple weeks ago on Veteran’s Day (November 11) to check out the world’s newest national museum. Billed as the world’s sixth largest museum, it is an expansive, elongated building situated on a site formerly known as the Yongsan Army Garrison Golf Course (some Yongsan inhabitants still lament over the loss of their golf course and the need to make a 45-minute trek to another course). The museum building had been completed and vacant for months, but the Korean Government needed to wait to open the museum until the Yongsan helicopter pad moved to another location, paving the way for the completion of the museum’s front gate and outdoor parking lot.
The museum was designed by Kim Chung-Il of Junglim Architects and Engineers, Ltd., who beat out many other entries to design the national museum’s new home. Personally, I prefer the design of the third-runner up submitted by Kim Hyun-cheol, but then, I’m not a big fan of the winning design for the World Trade Center in Manhattan either. A model of the winning entry is on display at the National Museum. The museum has moved frequently since the Korean War. For years, the museum was housed in "The Capitol Hall," located between Gwanghwamun Gate and Gyongbok Palace. The historical building, built by the Japanese and used as their primary administrative building during the Japanese Colonial Period, was often referred to as "The Capitol Hall" because it reminded some Western visitors of the U.S. Capitol Building. Although beautiful, it served as a symbol of Korean animosity towards Japanese colonialism, not only because it served a Japanese government building but also because it was deliberately built to overshadow Gyongbok Palace, the former Korean royal palace. (I heard that "The Capitol Hall," built in the shape of the first part of the Japanese name for Japan, "Ni," complemented the Seoul City Hall building, whose layout resembles the second part of the name, "Hon.") In 1996, the Korean government demolished "The Capitol Hall" and moved the national museum to a smaller location, the Seokjojeon Building, storing away many precious artifacts until a permanent home could be built. Nine years later, these artifacts have again been put on display in the new National Museum of Korea complex. I thought it odd that Korea would destroy the current home of their national museum before building another museum, but apparently resentment over the building led the government to dismantle it prematurely.
The museum is grand, sophisticated, and a bit cavernous. The long central hall leading from a large, circular atrium to the "ten-story pagoda" is quite impressive. The architecture definitely places this museum in rarified air. However, when I visited the museum, I was struck by two glaring observations: 1) The museum building is too large for its collection of treasures; and 2) Although it has also some Chinese and Japanese artifacts, the collection lacks the cosmopolitan feel of world museums such as the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian. Granted, many of the world’s best museums are dedicated to perserving their nation’s cultural heritage, most notably the awe-inspiring Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. The National Museum of Korea easily ranks among the world’s top museums in this category. It features extensive collections of art and artifacts from three millennia of Korean history, including pieces from the Silla, Joseon, Baekche, and Goguryo dynasties. It’s also good that it has room to grow, because its collection will surely continue to grow. I’m torn as to whether it is better to collect pieces from around the country in a single location, because I’ve heard that regional and local museums suffered when many of their prized treasures were transferred to the National Museum. It’s nice to see them all in one place, but to me personally, there’s nothing like going to a place such as Gyeongju and seeing Silla artifacts in a museum close to where they were excavated.
My son really enjoyed the museum. Although it has a great children’s museum, we went into the adult museum instead. He especially enjoyed the small-scale models of the currently museum and of the buildings that previously housed the National Museum. We spent a long time playing with one of the museum’s interactive computers, playing games such as "Making pottery and jewelry," and "Learn calligraphy." As to be expected in "wired" Korea, the museum is fairly high tech. You can check out headphones and a portable guide that explains more about the museum pieces in your native language, and you can search the museum’s entire collection in a single database. The museum exhibition hall now spotlights the history of the National Museum, although it will also be used for other exhibitions. The exterior offers amenities such as parks, reflecting pools, and an expansive view of nearby Yongsan Army Garrison, a U.S. military base. Many Koreans have never seen Yongsan Garrison; now they get their chance to see it even if they still cannot enter the military base. It is, after all, also a significant piece of Korea’s cultural heritage. Perhaps best of all, the museum is free through the end of the year. The entrance fees are reasonable, but you can’t beat free. If you’re Seoul this year, be sure to stop by the National Museum while you’re here.