The permanent exhibitions take up three airy floors, and are divided as thus: Prehistory and Ancient History (including all of the major ancient kingdoms and confederacies on the Korean peninsula), Medieval and Early Modern History (including Goryeo and Joseon), Calligraphy and Painting, Donated Works, Asian Art, and Sculptures and Crafts.
If you want a more detailed description of the permanent exhibition, including photos, you should go to the official website. I am going to focus on my own impressions.
I love history, as anyone who had read a significant number of posts on this blog can tell, so I totally dug the history galleries. Even though I had already learned a lot about Silla and Baekje during my travels, I still managed to learn more about them, and I thought the section about Goguryeo and the Gaya Confederacy to be really interesting.
I learned even more from the Medieval and Early Modern History sections, particularly about the Goryeo kingdom, which had not been featured prominently in my travels.
Speaking of the Goryeo dynasty, the most famous exhibit in the museum, in the ‘Sculptures and Crafts’ section, is a collection of precious Goryeo celadon ceramics, which are delightfully beautiful, and featured in the photos of this post.
These works look even more wonderful in real life than in photos.
During the Goryeo dynasty, Korean ceramics were prized all over East Asia, and shipwrecks demonstrate that it was a common commodity in international trade at that time.
Many examples of these delightful ceramic works come from Ganghwa island, which was a temporary capital of the Goryeo kingdom.
The museum explains that the quantity and quality of these ceramics produced drastically declined during the last century of Goryeo rule, which implies economic disruption/collapse.
In the ‘Calligraphy and Painting’ gallery, I was most impressed by the Joseon portrait paintings.
My uncle visited the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, and he commented about the classic Chinese paintings that all of the faces looked the same – if you saw the face and nothing else, you wouldn’t be able to tell one person in the painting from another. He said this is very different from the classic paintings from the European renaissance, which clearly show the unique features of each face.
By contrast, the upper class of Joseon dynasty, at least the men, wanted portraits of themselves made in highly realistic style – realistic enough that their friends and family could recognize them in the painting. Furthermore, a painter was not supposed to only capture a subject’s external features, but to also show the subject’s personality in the painting. I didn’t take any photos of paintings, but you can see a few examples including this one on the museum’s website.
There is also the Asian Art Gallery, which focuses on non-Korean Asian Art.
I thought the ‘Central Asia’ collection was particularly interesting. Many of the works were originally uncovered by Japanese archaeologists, and later transported to Korea for display in a museum run by the Japanese colonial government. The collection was transferred to South Korean ownership after independence.
Speaking of Japanese colonialism, there was a temporary exhibit displaying works from the major art museum established by the Japanese colonial government. The exhibit showed how the Japanese-founded museums used Asian works to support its own narrative that Japan was the only civilized country in Asia, and that other Asians should become ‘civilized’, that is, more like the Japanese.
So if that was the narrative of the Japanese-era museums, what is the narrative of this museum? To me, the overarching message is ‘Korea is a place with a long, rich, and complicated history, which has made many artistic masterpieces revealing the creative and technical genius of the Korean people, just as other Asian cultures have their own artistic genius’. It’s what you’d expect from a place called ‘The National Museum of Korea’.
If you can visit only ONE museum in South Korea, the National Museum of Korea would be a safe choice. Anyone with an interest in Korean history or art, or history and art in general, should visit.