Posted : 2013-07-25 17:05
Updated : 2013-07-25 17:05

Revisiting the 'forgotten war'

Delegates sign the Korean Armistice Agreement that paused the three-year Korean War in the truce village of Panmunjom. Gen. W. K. Harrison, Jr., left table, and North Korean Gen. Nam Il, right table, sign documents on July 23, 1953. It took effect on July 27.

Armistice exhibition raises doubts about new museum

Visitors to the National Museum of Korean Contemporary
History can view documents relevant to the Korean War.
/ Courtesy of National Museum of Korean Contemporary History
By Do Je-hae

The Lee Myung-bak administration kicked out the culture ministry to build a new museum in its place five years ago, resulting in establishment of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History last December in central Seoul.

The purpose of the $41.3 million museum, as the officials put it, is to honor the economic and social achievements of modern Korea. The seven-story museum will eventually house 43,000 items in a collection that represents Korea's economic and social transformations since 1876.

Despite a free admission system and good location in the heart of Gwanghwamun area, the museum still has not been able to fully convince the public or the press about its purpose. On the outside, it still gives off the feel of a slightly modified version of a boring government complex. The building had previously housed the culture ministry and the Korean Culture Information Service for more than three decades.

The entrance to the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History displays photographs relevant to the Korean War as part of its special program to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement.
/ Courtesy of National Museum of Korean Contemporary History

Apart from its permanent exhibitions, the museum had not held any special exhibitions until this week when it launched the "Sixty Years After the Armistice (1953-2013)" on Monday with an opening ceremony led by Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong.

The museum chose a timely theme — the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War (1950-1953) — for its first-ever special exhibition which runs until Sept. 1. It remains to be seen how much the exhibition will contribute to improving the image and public awareness of the museum.

The opening of the exhibition received scant attention from the media and press reviews so far have been mostly unfavorable. The latest reviews have basically labeled the exhibition a "purposeless array of documents, photos and videos."

"Through this exhibition, we hope to provide an opportunity to reflect on the virtues of freedom and peace that Korea has safeguarded since the signing of the armistice agreement on July 27, 1953," Kim Wang-sik, director of the museum, said in a press conference.

But the exhibition failed to clearly manifest such intent.

"Sixty Years After the Armistice (1953-2013)," the first special exhibition of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, will run until September.
/ Courtesy of National Museum of Korean Contemporary History

An incomprehensible aspect of the exhibition is that some of the most interesting parts of it — the photographs relevant to the war and reconciliation efforts — are displayed at the foreground of the museum. It would have been more visitor-friendly if they had made space for them inside the museum and provide sitting space so that people can reflect on the significance of the photos in a more private, tranquil atmosphere.

Because the museum lacks indoor space for a special exhibition, a majority of the displays remain outside the building except for documents pertaining to the war. Visitors can see copies of the armistice agreement and other relevant documents.

The exhibition is split into five segments: "Memories of the War;" "Conflict, Reconciliation and Peace;" "The Korean War in the Eyes of Participating Nations;" "From Ruins to Prosperity" and "DMZ."

"The Korean War in the Eyes of Participating Nations" is a video series displayed on the main stairway of the museum, featuring foreign veterans who fought alongside South Korean soldiers. But again, because there is insufficient sitting area, it is hard for visitors to fully appreciate the content of the videos.

As Korean schools have failed to provide sufficient history education, facilities like the museum have the responsibility to serve as an alternative source of learning for students, who are the majority of museum visitors.

But it seems its first special exhibition has only increased doubts about whether the museum has the capacity to fully overcome an identity crisis it has suffered since its inception and establish itself as a landmark cultural site of the capital.

It will continue to be labeled a waste of taxpayers' money unless the museum provides more organized and visitor-friendly programs in the years ahead.

The exhibition does make a useful impression at times with rare historical displays, such as the "Record of Gaesong Armistice Talks." Another interesting item on display is a personal diary kept by Kim Sung-chil (1913-1951), a former historian at Seoul National University, around the time of the outbreak of the North Korean invasion.

A hand-written diary entry dated June 26, 1950, expresses his despair at "the roaring of North Koreans cannons coming from the direction of Uijeongbu."

From Aug. 1 through Aug. 4, the museum will hold music and film events on the Korean War.

The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and is closed Mondays. For more information, visit

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