Many people travel across the world to see ancient ruins dating back to hundreds, even thousands of years ago to marvel at the ingenuity of masons, sculptors and artisans who lived long before our time. Museums, however, despite housing some of the best and most refined cultural relics mankind has ever created, are not usually the main reason for people to travel, save a few exceptional ones like the Louvre. For me the defining moment that profoundly changed my perception toward historical museums was on my trip to Cambodia back in 2011.
On the way to Angkor Wat from downtown Siem Reap, I stopped by the Angkor National Museum which is the main archaeological museum dedicated to the preservation of artifacts from the Angkorian period. Not only was the museum’s rich collection well-presented, but the information for each of them as well as the timeline of the history of Khmer civilization was also very clear and concise, helping me understand more about the time frame of the Angkorian kings which in turn allowed me to appreciate the ruins better later on that day. Since then, visiting historical museums has become an essential part of my travels for that is where the grand scheme of a story lies, one that is recounted by silent witnesses from a bygone era.
Prior to my recent trip to Seoul, I had already put the National Museum of Korea in my list of must-see places in the South Korean capital. Ideally one should visit this museum – unsurprisingly the country’s largest – before exploring the five palaces of Seoul that date back to the time when the Korean peninsula was still ruled by monarchs. And thanks to the less than ideal weather on my first day there, this was exactly what James and I did. Situated at Yongsan Park to the north of the Han River that cuts through the city, the ultra-modern museum sat imposingly behind a small lake. Hurrying to take shelter from the incessant rain and cold gusts of wind, we arrived at the museum’s grand entrance. There was no admission fee, but we were more relieved by the fact that within this lofty structure we found a much-needed refuge from the chilly temperatures outside.
Our exploration of the museum’s ground floor was done in a counter-clockwise direction, beginning with a section directly to the right of the security checkpoint. Showcasing artifacts from prehistoric Korea, the museum’s collection displayed in this part includes hand axes and bowls from a time long before the advent of local kingdoms. Then the museum takes visitors to chambers filled with items procured from all over the peninsula, dating back to the period of ancient Korean kingdoms, chiefly Gojoseon and Goguryeo. While the previous section emphasizes things created out of necessity with functionality in mind, this part of the museum exhibits daily objects with elaborate embellishments. In this period coins were minted in the shape of a knife and belt buckles were crafted using gold and precious stones.
As we walked to the next section, which highlighted the kingdoms of Korea’s classical period, we caught a glimpse of one of two centerpieces of the museum: a stele inscribed with the story of a ninth-century Buddhist preceptor called Wollang standing on top of a turtle, a revered animal in East Asian cultures. The part of the museum we were entering put a spotlight on the kingdoms of Baekje, Gaya and Silla, of which the latter has left modern-day Koreans with a glistening treasure in the shape of a gold crown. So special is this jade-studded artifact to the nation it is given its own room, the pièce de résistance of this section of the museum.
The next chronological section of the museum showcases relics from the period when large parts of the Korean peninsula were united under a new, unified Silla. As we were making our way across the main atrium to reach this part, the second and more stunning centerpiece of this house of Korean treasures loomed ten stories high: a stone pagoda from the 14th century. It looked majestic under the museum’s roofs, and it must have looked even more so at its original location outdoors. Still enthralled by this wonder from the past, we entered the Unified Silla section, filled with remnants from this once powerful kingdom.
The contiguous section displays the cultural wealth from the kingdom of Goryeo, from which the modern name of Korea was derived. It was during this period that all of what is now South Korea and most of North Korea was unified, creating one of East Asia’s most powerful empires. Korean artistic finesse reached new heights at this time – with fine celadon ceramics and elaborate lacquerware being among the most celebrated works of art in Korean history.
The last sections of the counter-clockwise journey through millennia at the National Museum of Korea’s ground floor took us to the time of the Joseon Dynasty, a Neo-Confucian kingdom after which North Korea is officially named (Choson). Less ornate and extravagant that those in other sections of the museum, the collection here is a testament to the Confucianism-influenced new focus of the ruling dynasty. Governance, education and a strong work ethic were among the main principles of the state ideology, which unsurprisingly discouraged the Buddhism that otherwise had strong roots in the peninsula. Thanks to these principles, however, East Asian countries and territories experienced an economic boom in the 20th and 21st centuries.
At the very end of our exploration we were at a small section on the Korean empire, a short-lived empire that only lasted eight years before the peninsula was annexed by Japan until the end of World War II. The withdrawal of Japan following their defeat from the Allies marked the beginning of a divided Korea: the communist North and the US-backed South which we know now as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea, respectively. We had spent three hours marveling at the museum’s collection on the ground floor, walking through thousands of years of Korean history, and knowing that we would have two more floors to explore on a future visit. Without a doubt, this was one of the most magnificent museums I had ever been to.