How Korean Identity is Reflected in Seoul Museums > K-POP

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How Korean Identity is Reflected in Seoul Museums

  • Name : korea
  • Date : 2023-07-24 09:17:07

As a foreigner visiting Seoul for the first time, I’ve been most impressed by the museums here, and the aspects of Korea they present. Every museum I've gone to in Seoul—from the large, national ones, to smaller, local ones—has left a deep impression on me.


Museums in Seoul engage visitors by being immersive, interactive, thought-out, organized, and by following a narrative. They reflect the integrity, innovation, artistry, and work ethic of Korean society, not only in the subject and information that they display, but in the organization and set-up of the displays themselves.


One example is the National Palace Museum of Korea. Located beside Gyeongbokgung Palace, it presents the history and structure of the five palaces built during the Joseon dynasty, as well as the lives of the royal family and others that lived within them. With arches and patterns built into walls of the exhibit rooms, and the life-size models of different palace rooms, walking through the museum feels like experiencing life in the palace itself. Moreover, the further you walk through the museum, you see how the palace interior changed with the passing of time, becoming more modern—adding to the immersive, narrative aspect of the museum visit.



When you walk outside of the building, you are greeted with the sight of the actual main palace of the Joseon dynasty: Gyeongbokgung Palace is standing there, just as it has been since Seoul was founded as a capital, since 1395. And there are people walking around it wearing hanbok, just as there have always been, and the street outside of it which, back then, was made the market street, is still a market street today. Standing there, I saw all the different layers of life and history overlapping before me.


I was again struck by how old of a capital Seoul is when I walked along the Seoul City Wall, and visited the Seoul City Wall Museum, which stands at an eastern portion of it, in Jongno. Similarly to the Palace Museum, it engages the visitor and creates a narrative. Arrows on the ground point you in the direction you’re meant to walk, following the passage of time: you see how the wall was first built (in only 98 days, with different sections assigned to different villages), how it was maintained throughout the centuries, how it suffered great damage during the Japanese Colonial period, but was later to an extent restored, and the value it holds as cultural heritage today.



There are scale models of sections of the wall, and of people constructing and interacting with the wall, and videos projected onto the models showing movement throughout time, so you can really get a sense of the life the wall has seen over the centuries it has withstood through. In one interactive section of the museum, you can add your own name to a digital projection of the city wall—imitating how the names of villages are inscribed onto stones of the real wall, to mark the section the denoted village was tasked with constructing. 


It may be that for people that have lived in Seoul for the entirety of their lives, the wall is but an unremarkable, constant presence. But for me, coming from comparatively newer cities, the presence of the palaces and the wall in Seoul is truly incredible. It is astounding to realize that this wall, which protected the city throughout the Joseon dynasty, still surrounds the much larger, taller, high-tech city of today. You can see how old the stones are by their shape and color—different stones from different periods of time. This is true evidence of Korean workmanship; it has stood the test of time, and is preserved through hard work and Korean people’s pride in their heritage and identity.


Walking along the wall, I also see the holes from which guards would spot and defend against invaders, and the large sections of the wall that were destroyed during the Japanese occupation. I think of the history of fighting that South Korea has persevered through.


Perhaps then, the most moving of the museums I’ve visited has been the War Memorial of Korea. With an extensive, comprehensive timeline along the walls showing Korea’s development in relation to the rest of the world, life-size models of ships, weapons, structures, and people, and video rooms showing animated recreations of great wars throughout Korean history, the museum provides an immersive and interactive educational experience.




Outside, before the entrance to the museum, stands the Korean War Monument: statues of patriots (soldiers and ordinary citizens, men and women, children) surround a tower in the center, along with monuments commemorating the foreign nations who fought alongside them. The Roll of Honor, along the exterior of the main Memorial Hall building, presents plaques displaying the names of all of the ROK and UN soldiers who gave their lives during the Korean War. Inside the building, the Memorial Hall commemorates all the lives sacrificed to protect South Korea: a long white hallway with specks of light on the ceiling, like stars, lead you to a circular, high-ceilinged, domed room; a still, black pool of water sits at the center, and all is dark except for a single beam of sunlight that falls from the top of the dome onto the middle of the water—symbolizing new life.


Despite being a foreigner and having no familial connection to this country, these monuments truly moved me, making me reflect on everything that has been given to make South Korea the country it is today.


I felt the weight of this reflection also at my favorite of all the museums I’ve visited so far: the Seoul Museum of History.


Guiding visitors through the entire story of Seoul, from prehistoric times to the modern day, the Seoul Museum of History is truly innovative and immersive. There are four different sections: the Joseon dynasty, the Korean Empire, the Japanese occupation, and the Republic of Korea. As you walk, you follow the narrative in chronological order, so you can watch history develop, feel as if you’re living through it all, and appreciate what it has taken for Seoul to be what it is now.


Notable features (like a hallway with animations of the city projected onto the walls that you can interact with, and a life-size model of a typical Korean apartment that you can walk inside of) make you appreciate what life was really like in each period of Seoul’s history.


The grand finale of the exhibit is an expansive scale model of the entire city of Seoul, that you can walk over and around, with a captivating, informative video projected on the surrounding walls.



Seoul is a truly remarkable city: it is at once so old, founded as the capital in 1392, and yet, in the modern period, it is so new, given its rebirth as the Republic of Korea in 1948, and its subsequent incredibly fast industrial, economic and technological development.


In recent history, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, and today, it has the 13th largest GDP and is leading many high-tech industries worldwide. At the same time, its capital is standing in the same place it has stood for centuries, and the infrastructure of the ancient city is largely preserved. The wall built in 1396 is still standing, not forgetting its purpose even as the city went through extreme changes, suffered through violence, preserved and suddenly grew faster than any city has before it. Seoul is now one of the richest, most modern cities in the world, yet the main palace of the Joseon dynasty still stands at the heart of it.


There are layers upon layers of life and history in Korea. How can you communicate everything that has happened here? The resounding significance of it all? The only way you could truly understand is if you were there to witness it. The dedicated people behind Korea’s museums make one come as close as possible to understanding.


The virtues of hard work, integrity, pride, and intricate thought are as much integrated into South Korea’s museums as they are into the structures of the country itself.


By Caroline Ketelhohn, Summer Intern   

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