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Destination: National Museum of Korean Contemporary History (downtown Seoul)

December 27, 2012 - Chris Backe

Opening today (December 27, 2012), the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History (대한민국 역사박물관) aims to display the last 150 years of so of modern Korean history, starting from 1860. With 44,800,000,000 won ($41.3 million) spent, the 6,445-square-meter museum is controversial not because of the cost, but over what elements of history are covered. From the liberally-based Hankyoreh:

The details about the museum that surfaced during the latest parliamentary audit show the results of that. The whole enterprise is organized around the theme of a national success story: from its beginnings to its groundwork for growth, its development, its advancement, and finally its “great strides out into the world.” This all but requires it to extol the virtues of the Rhee and Park dictatorships. And, indeed, the basic exhibition explanatory materials contain 28 references to the former and 24 to the latter, compared to just 19 for all other presidents combined. The 1961 military coup that put Park in power is described as resulting from the Chang Myon administration’s incompetence. Nothing anywhere in the exhibition mentions the judicially sanctioned murder of members of the People’s Revolution Party, one of the darkest days in world judicial history.

In any case, there were a few open-to-the-public days before the official opening, so off we went.

The first floor, full of offices and a reception area larger than three apartments, didn’t have an English-language brochure ready for the pre-opening days (“They’re being printed”, assured one of the staff).  Everything else seemed ready, of course, including video built into the ceiling for the ADD generation. It made me wonder why a simple thing like brochures weren’t ready when roughly 43,000 items on display were. In any cases, the first gallery featured articles from 1860-1945:

Harper’s Weekly, 9 September 1871, showing “The Corean War” and the Korean “barbarians”. While the 8-point text is virtually unreadable from over a meter away, 1871 was the year of the American landing in Korea (the word “invasion” is used elsewhere in the museum). While the incident isn’t mentioned again, this is one of the first exhibits you’ll use in the section titled “Attempt to Establish an Independent Modern Nation”.

A collection of Korean flags from the decades.

A Japanese elementary school ethics textbook from 1937, along with an “Imperial Subject Oath” from 1930 and some propoganda telling the subjects to bow towards Japan’s Imperial Palace. I’m fairly impressed with the amount of primary source materials here.

The second gallery goes from 1945-1961:

Dividing the room into two halves along the 38th parallel. Not pictured nearby is a contrast of source materials and a high-tech, meters-long video screen.

Presidential campaign flyers from 1948, with the Korean government now back on the peninsula after years of hiding in China.

Not pictured here (but presented in the museum) is a small section recognizing the contribution of women, along with a five-minute video on the ambitions behind Korea’s educational system. Both of these seemed more like asides that needed to be put somewhere

Some of you have taught in a classroom like this, though hopefully you didn’t have the eighty of so students that would have been sitting at the dozens of desks.

Also not pictured here (but presented) is a sketch of Rhee’s 1952 ‘Peace Line’ showing Dokdo to be Korean territory – because every Korean museum simply has to present the truthiness of the two tiny treeless islands.

It’s here where the interest turned from hard history to some WTF moments. The 1950′s record above looks more like something from a horror movie, but is presented as one of the popular music albums from the decade.

If you can read the Korean above, try to refrain from laughing too loudly. The 시발 (shi-bal) was first made with parts from American jeeps, and released in 1955. 시발 literally means ‘start’, but today is used as the local equivalent of f**k.

The 4/19 Revolution that followed the rigged 1960 election of Syngman Rhee. It’s a bit of a shame that the picture looks like something out of West Side Story or another musical.

It’s here in the third gallery where some of the controversy comes in. Park Chung Hee’s military regime brought forth a number of economic developments, at the cost of democracy and repression of dissent. The issue is that the former is given far more room, while the latter is recognized like the visiting team during a big sports game.

If you’ve visited the Namhae German Village, this part of Korean history will be more familiar – during the 1960′s and 70′s a large number of Koreans went to West Germany to work as miners and nurses. The miners are now celebrated as heroes doing dirty and dangerous work, while the nurses are hailed as angels in at least one part.

At first, I thought this was a horrific jimjilbang out fit you might wear while around the day spa, but nope – this is a drill uniform from the 60′s to the 80′s.

Some of the firsts in Korea’s electronics, almost all with a Samsung or ‘Goldstar’ (now LG) logo. Also nearby is a propaganda-laden animation featuring the birth of steel-making in Korea, highlighting the detractors to the concept and claiming success after POSCO officially opened in 1972.

Not pictured (but presented) are exhibits highlighting the Saemaeul (“New Village”) movement that attempted to revitalize rural areas, along with more displays of culture from the mid-20th century – including a hilarious boxing bout between the skinniest male boxer ever and a clearly superior ajumma boxer.

A more minimal exhibit dedicated to the protests against military or corrupt powers in more recent decades. While primary sources are again used, the facts are presented with little flair. Surely there’s more photos and videos than are presented here…? Not pictured (but presented) is a room dedicated to Korea’s presidents, and an opportunity to sit behind a replica of the ‘big desk’.

The final gallery starts around 1986 with preparation for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and emphasizes how Korea has arrived onto the world scene.

A sound-containing room features a loud video featuring the most nationalistic event that brought the country together – the World Cup. Bang on the drum along with the bass-heavy soundtrack, and be thankful the engineers put in plenty of soundproofing.

While a bit hard to see, the wall aims to highlight the ‘hallyu’ / Korean wave. While there’s one name you’ve probably heard of, anyone unfamiliar with K-pop would have a tough time naming more than a few songs done by these ‘artists’…

Tech from previous years, side-by-side with the tech of today. While I doubt the tablet displayed will age well, it looks to be a completely unlocked device – and the larger TV on the other side of the glass displays it.

As a review of Korea’s history, it does the job. The controversy is deserved, however, and the more of the back story you care to learn the more messy the story gets. To be clear, history can be a messy subject, and there’s at least two sides to any story (especially when the election of the dictator’s daughter). I’d also note that while the translation to English started out quite good, at least a few typos snuck through on both hard-copy and digital displays, while an entire paragraph in the final gallery makes zero sense whatsoever:

Korean Culture & Korean Studies around the World

The Korean Culture spreads out even into the far corners of the globe.
Korean wave now stands in the core of this era. As a result, Korean wave became an identical cultural trend around the world.
Korean wave is an Equivalent meaning of the cultural contents industry, which boots up the national presitage as well. Also it plays an important role as a medium of inter-national communication. A keen internet in Korean culture led to learning Korea language, so that the King Sejong Institution being spread out rapidly.

Ratings (out of 5 taeguks - How do I rate destinations?):

Ease to arrive:

Foreigner-friendly:

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Worth the visit:

Name: National Museum of Korean Contemporary History (대한민국 역사박물관)
Address: Seoul, Jongno-gu Se-jong-dae-ro 198
Korean address: 서울특별시 종로구 세종대로 198
Directions: Gwanghwamun station, line 5, exit 2. Walk straight down the sidewalk and pass the well-secured US Embassy building. It’ll be just past it. Dozens of buses stop at either the Sejong Center, the KT Gwanghwamun Office, or Gyeongbokgung.
Hours: 9am-6pm (closed Monday and New Year’s Day)
Admission: free
Phone: 02-3703-9200
Website: http://www.much.go.kr

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