Three Things Thursday

This month for your added-value delight I present…

…three more great museums in Seoul.

After a period on peculiar working hours in my last job, I found myself with three months of Friday afternoons going spare and undertook to visit a different museum every week. My top three museums were wrapped up in a Three Things post that proved enduringly popular, but there were other, equally interesting and beautifully put-together museums, three of which I’m sharing here.

This time, it’s a combination of ancient and modern history which, taken together, furnished me with some invaluable cultural reference points and a much greater appreciation for a number of aspects of the national psyche. It also gave me a lot to talk about with Korean friends and students who appreciated the interest in their history, culture, and language.

Thing 1 ~ the National Hangeul Museum

Ask any Korean (and I have asked many) what they think is the greatest invention in history, and around 50% will probably tell you it’s Hangeul, or the Korean alphabet. It even has a national holiday – Proclamation Day – to celebrate the event of King Sejong the Great, the creator of Hangeul, presenting the writing system to the nation in 1446.

On Proclamation Day (October 9th) 2014, this funky, custom designed museum opened its doors for the first time. The museum sits snugly in the grounds of the National Museum in Yongsan. I was lucky enough to join a special tour courtesy of the Talk To Me In Korean crew via their Meetup group only a couple of months later which included a guided walk around the three floors of the museum.

The route starts at the beginning of the journey of Hangeul and charts a course through its rise as a tool for Korean literary expression, its suppression in the Japanese colonial era and its status as a symbol of resistance to the cultural domination of the Japanese, to its post-war reemergence as a part of the push for national independence, unity, and a strong and clear signifier of the unique Korean identity.

There are also special exhibits on things like Hangeul in daily life, and at the time I was there this beautiful installation entitled Visible Sound.

Visible Sound on display

Visible Sound

Thing 2 ~ National Museum of Korea

Ten story pagoda

Ten story pagoda

Not that far from the War Memorial of Korea and just across the park from its young cousin the National Hangeul Museum, is the stately and serene National Museum of Korea. Stunningly constructed to offer a superb view of Namsan and N. Seoul Tower, the museum is a great place to start if you want a good grounding in the history of the peninsula. You can follow the trail of artefacts and National Treasures (which in Korea means actual treasure, or things, rather than dated celebrities that bring a warm tingle to your heart when you see them on TV) from prehistoric settlement sites and all the way through the great dynastic periods from Gojoseon, to Three Kingdoms, to the rise and demise of the Joseon dynasty in 1910.

As well as giving you an insight into the fascinating and rich history of the country and its neighbours, you will also gain a great insight into the recent craze for historical fiction  based on the heroes and villains of ancient sagas which has overrun Korean film and TV dramas. History buffs and telly addicts alike have plenty of meat to feed on when it comes to ancient dastardly deeds.

There’s more here than you can possibly see in a day, including the park and surrounds of the museum, so plan for a couple of trips and pick what you want to see first.

For twentieth-century Korean history, which is equally fascinating, the Seoul Museum of History in Seodaemun / Jongno is also worth a visit. If nothing else, pop up to the top floor to see the stunning scale model of modern Seoul!

Scale Seoul

Scale Seoul

The incredible scale model of Seoul taken from the north side, with Mt. Bukhan in the foreground, Mt. Ingwang stretching away to the right, and the bright lights of Jong-no in the centre leading to Namsan and the Han river.

Thing 3 ~ Seodaemun Prison History Museum

I paid a visit to this sombre reminder of the harsh privations of the Japanese colonial period in the dead of winter, which felt very appropriate. The bitter cold permeated the preserved jail cells; stark, bare rooms which would have hosted groups of prisoners through the freezing winters and sweltering summers of occupation.

The basement houses a particularly gruesome exhibition of the various methods of torture inflicted on the inmates. In true, high-tech Korean style, one of these is interactive and I came across a group of giggling schoolchildren videoing themselves on their smartphones as their faces were projected onto the model prisoner being beaten and dragged to the cells. I wasn’t sure whether ‘light comic relief’ was the original intention behind the exhibit.

The second floor has more traditional exhibits, including historical photographs of the prison, key moments in the Korean Independence movement such as the March 1st Movement of 1919, and details of the various figures who led and died in the push for independence. Away from the main buildings, there is the barren exercise yard and the small execution hut nestled at the foot of the surrounding hills.

It’s a small museum and a trip needn’t take more than an hour or so. Make sure to shake off the prison blues in the nearby Independence Park afterwards to remind yourself that all those decades of suffering weren’t in vain.

The links

The National Hangeul Museum:

Learn Korean with bite-sized podcasts and videos with Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK). It’s fun, free, and if you’re in Seoul the crew are very active and have regular Meetups.

Join TTMIK language exchanges and events through Meetup (as the epitome of cool, it also happens to be in Hongdae at the Eat Your Kimchi folks’ HQ):

Opening times, transport details and prices for the National Museum of Korea:

Some good pictures and information on the layout of the museum courtesy of Wikipedia:

Seoul Museum of History times and exhibitions:

Seodaemun Prison History Museum times and prices:

Peace in the grounds

Peace in the grounds of the National Museum of Korea


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