Posted : 2011-04-05 15:48
Updated : 2011-04-05 15:48

Exhibits discover history of old Seoul

Citizens take part in paving the roads in a 1961 photo, which is on display at the “Seoul, To Rise Again” exhibition at the Seoul Museum of History through April 24. / Courtesy of Seoul Museum of History

By Chung Ah-young

Skyscrapers create an impressive skyline for modern-day Seoul. It’s hard to imagine the city without the present landscape. What did Seoul look like back in the 1930s or in the 50s-60s when the nation was savaged by the Japanese colonial government (1910-45) and the Korean War (1950-53)?

Two exhibitions are being held to highlight the past and the old version of Seoul with special historic photographs and various installations. Held at the Seoul Museum of History, “Seoul, To Rise Again” will continue through April 24 while the Cheong Gye Cheon Museum is presenting “Old Seoul Through Foreign Eyes” through June 26.

The Seoul Museum of History is exhibiting photos that capture the images of the city from 1957 to 1963 when the nation was under reconstruction after the war. The period was the peak of the Korean baby boom, politically the era of dramatic change led by military regimes and administratively the time to zone the boundaries of Seoul.

Although the reconstruction project was completed during this period, there were still remnants of the war with a lack of homes, food and daily appliances along with rampant diseases, fires and flooding.

Moving photos of the era are showcased by section from politics, society, construction, health, transportation, administration to the daily lives of citizens.

In the political section, the photos capture the propaganda campaigns by the authoritarian regime in the late period of the Liberal Party and the events during the May 16 military coup. In the social section, East Ichon-dong, flooded due to heavy rains in September, 1959 and the shantytowns ravaged by fire are shown in the photos. It reveals inadequate civil resources to deal with disasters at that time resulting in severe damage.

The construction section displays the images of the reconstruction project — building the houses, paving the roads and restoring the rivers and streams. Also, the apartment buildings in Jongam-dong were constructed for the first time in 1958. In the reconstruction project, not only pubic officers but also students and ordinary citizens were mobilized in the construction.

The health and welfare section reveal how various kinds of contagious diseases were prevalent due to the lack of garbage and sewer systems. The city government offered vaccinations to citizens and quarantined the infected areas.

In the transportation section, visitors can see through the images that buses were more common than streetcars after the Korean War. Streetcars were predominant for public transportation but couldn’t accommodate the increasing number of passengers in the city or travel to the outer areas due to the shortage of the rails. From 1957, bus passengers outnumbered streetcar passengers.

Despite the political upheavals and economic difficulties, people’s daily lives seemed rather peaceful. Scenes of the outdoor skating rinks, pools, a public shower booth along the Han River and circus performances depict how people at that time enjoyed their leisure.

Admission is free. For more information call (02) 724-0154 or visit

In another worthwhile exhibit the Cheong Gye Cheon Museum is displaying the historical materials of Gyeongseong, the old name of Seoul during the Japanese colonial period. The exhibition is the first of its kind.

The first part showcases some 250 pieces of postcards, maps and newspaper articles that provide a glimpse of the old Seoul during that period. Since 1395, Hanseong, the capital of the Joseon Kingdom for 500 years was reorganized as Gyeongseong under the new administration system by the Japanese colonial government. The population of the city was 200,000 in the 1910s but rose to 400,000 in 1936 and the size of the Gyeongseong area quadrupled by including additional districts such as Goyang, Siheung and Kimpo areas.

The center of the city was divided into Bukchon, the areas above the Cheonggye Stream and Namchon, the areas below the stream. Namchon was where the Japanese lived around Chungmuro, Myeongdong and Euljiro equipped with modern conveniences such as water and electricity. It was called a little “Tokyo” as it was filled with flamboyant neon signs and commercial stores.

Meanwhile, Bukchon was the residential area for “yangban” (Joseon’s literati class). If Chungmuro had a decent modern café, Jongno had a “gisaeng” (traditional female entertainer) pub.

While Bukchon, where the legacy and tradition of the Joseon Kingdom remains, and Namchon, which retains the colonial modern landscapes, were a stark contrast, Namchon’s modernization and urbanization gradually penetrated into Bukchon.

At the second part of the exhibition, a large-sized floor plan that outlines the 3,000 stores which used to be in Jongno and Chungmuro is vividly on display for the first time. The map was reproduced by the construction department of Hanyang University.

Also, visitors can compare the Seoul of 1939 and present-day Seoul through video clips.

However, the captions and exhibits are a bit small and ill-presented to recognize the contents and brief explanations of the panels depreciated the exhibition.

Admission is free. For more information (02) 2286-3410 or visit
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