A photo taken by Walter Hillier, then British consul-general in Seoul, is on display at the exhibition "Jeong-dong in 1900" at the Seoul Museum of History through Jan. 20. / Courtesy of Seoul Museum of History
By Chung Ah-young
A trail less than a kilometer from the periphery of Seoul City Hall to Sinmun Road in the Jeong-dong area is one of few spots where one can calmly stroll amid the hustle and bustle of downtown Seoul. But its birth was as dark as the fate of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
The Seoul Museum of History, located in the area, is showing the historical vicissitudes of Jeong-dong at the dawn of modern Korea through the exhibition "Jeong-dong in 1900" through Jan. 20, 2013.
It is showcasing some 300 historical relics to celebrate the museum's 10th anniversary event, including 28 that were presented to the Universal Exposition, a world fair held in Paris in 1900.
This photo shows the interior of the Korean pavilion at the Universal Exposition, a world fair held in Paris in 1900
Starting with the establishment of the United States' legation in Jeong-dong in 1883, foreign legations and embassies rushed to inhabit the district, shaping a unique zone for expatriates.
It was the emergence of the area which had little attention paid to it for much of the Joseon Kingdom. Coincidentally, King Gojong moved his main residence from Gyeongbok Palace to Deoksu Palace there in 1897, called Gyeongun Palace at that time.
Surrounded by the legations of China, Russia and the United States, Gyeongun Palace gave much comfort to King Gojong as he feared for his life following the assassination of Empress Myeongseong by the Japanese in 1895. Missionaries and businesses catering to the early expats sprang up faster. Since then, the area witnessed vital historical events in the waning days of the state. It was the locale of not only diplomatic, historical haggles but also the cradle for modern Western cultures encompassing medical, educational and missionary venues.
Medical tools used by Richard Wunsch, a personal physician to King Gojong, are seen above.
The exhibition consists of two parts. In the first section titled "A Strange Coexistence in Jeong-dong" is an early image of the district from the 1890s, before King Gojong changed his main residence, in a photo taken by Walter Hillier, then British consul-general in Seoul.
Originally, the district was home to Jeongneung, the royal tomb of Queen Sindeok of the early Joseon era, which was later moved. King Gojong moved to Gyeongun Palace and changed the name of the state from Joseon to the Korean Empire and ascended to the imperial throne in 1897. To uplift the dignity of the throne, he extended the palace, having more Western-style structures built. Thus the palace has a mixture of traditional and Western-style structures.
In this section, a blueprint of Seokjojeon Hall, and an early plan of Gyeongun Palace are on show, along with holographic images of King Gojong who desperately wished autonomy by seeking a peaceful coexistence with Western powers.
The images and models show the grandiose Western-style architecture of the British, Russian and French legations.
"As many foreign legations were set up in Jeong-dong, neighboring buildings began hosting Christian missionaries, medical and educational institutions, hotels and stores for expats. For that reason, the district became a window to new cultures," according to the museum.
Various historical documents and medical tools used by Richard Wunsch (1869-1911), a personal physician to King Gojong, are also on display. Scenes of royal banquets by King Gojong that foreign diplomats attended are recreated in the exhibition hall, along with various kitchen tools such as bakeware and pans on show.
Videos created by augmented reality technology presents various events such as a wedding ceremony conducted in front of the French legation in 1905.
The second section is titled "The Universal Exposition of Paris in 1900." This part features the Korean pavilion at the Paris fair and relics from it.
The nation presented various items such as agricultural products, costumes, furniture and artifacts to the expo. French diplomat Maurice Courant highly evaluated such a presence in Paris saying that the Korean pavilion showed the Korean civilization at a glance.
In this exhibition, official documents exchanged between Korea and France including "Souvenir de Seoul" by Courant before the expo are shown. Also, 38 items such as ceramics, traditional musical instruments donated to France are presented.
For more information, call (02) 724-0275-6 or visit www.museum.seoul.kr.