I expected the Seoul Museum of History to be small and not say much more than I had already learned by visiting many other museums in South Korea. Instead, I got a museum jam-packed with historical information, much of it previously unfamiliar to me.
There is an outdoor exhibition showing various artifacts relevant to the history of Seoul. For example, remains from the concrete version of Gwanghwamun are there (it was removed to construct a more historically faithful version of the gate as it might have looked in Joseon times), as well as remains from the dismantled Government-General building which administered Korea as a colony of the Japanese empire.
The museum tell the history of Seoul, and starts in Joseon times. Much of the information about Joseon life was already familiar to me, but I still learned new details.
Of course, the dioramas of Seoul’s streets in Joseon times were cool.
The Museum is built on the former grounds of a Joseon grand palace which, unlike the palaces which stand today, was not fortunate enough to be restored.
The section which made the greatest impression on me was Hall II: 1863 ~ 1910 “Taking Tradition Forward with Aspirations for an Imperial Capital”. It covered the reign of King/Emperor Gojong who upgraded Joseon from a ‘kingdom’ to an ’empire’, and tried to bring in the best of Western knowledge to improve his
kingdom empire. The museum makes the case that Joseon was adopting modern technologies and learning from Europeans. For example, King Gojong supported the development of European-style schools, including, significantly, the first school in Korea which accepted female pupils (previously, the very few Korean women who got a formal education did so through tutoring). A modern postal system was set up, a streetcar line was built and operated in Seoul, and other innovations from abroad were implemented.
The museum does seem to make the case that, had Japan not annexed Joseon, Joseon would have adopted modern technology and the best of foreign ideas on its own terms, and that the Korean people would have benefited more from this knowledge without Japanese exploitation. Perhaps this is so.
In a way, it seems that King/Emperor Gojong was trying to be a bit of an Emperor Meiji, but every account I’ve read which compares Joseon and Japan indicates that Joseon’s attempts to modernize did not go nearly as far as the radical transformation of the Meiji Restoration. Perhaps this is because the Joseon government was much more stable and long-lasting than the Japanese governments it co-existed with, and because the Joseon government did not collapse the way the shogunate did, there was no opportunity to implement the radical changes which the Meiji Restoration achieved.
And finally, the museum has a large scale model of the entire city of Seoul.
If you’ve read many of the posts on this blog, you know that I love learning about history, and that this museum is exactly the kind of place I enjoy visiting.