(564) Modern museum
On Nov. 2, 1909, Korea’s newspapers (there were plenty of dailies published in Korea at the time) told of a major event which had taken place one day earlier: an “Imperial Dynasty Museum” was opened to the public.
This was the first modern museum in Korean history. It still exists nowadays, being known as the National Museum of Korea. From 2005, the museum has been located in a large building in Yongsan, Seoul. Of course this was not its initial location. When the museum was first opened in 1909, it was located in Changdeok Palace (it shared these premises with a zoo and a botanical garden, opened simultaneously).
In order to house the Imperial Dynasty Museum, the palace had to undergo some reconstruction ― the heated ondol floors were replaced with unheated maru and in some cases the floor plan had to be altered.
Changdeok Palace was chosen as the site for the museum because it was seen as somewhat symbolically inferior to other palaces ― including Gyeongbok. Changdeok was not the official residence of the Korean monarchs but was seen as royal living quarters.
The idea of a museum was quite new to the Koreans in the early 1900s. Nowadays Korean historians often point at private collections of antiques as kind of proto-museums. Their patriotic zeal is understandable but it seems to be a bit of stretching definitions. At any rate, it was only in 1909 when any Korean, having paid a fee, could see valuable cultural artifacts on display.
Incidentally, it was not very cheap. In 1909 the museum entrance fee for an adult was 0.1 won. Since at the time the average monthly salary of a junior clerk would be 15-20 won, this fee was roughly the equivalent of 15,000 won today.
The idea of museums came to Korea from the West. It found an enthusiastic audience among Korean royalty. King Gojong (he had abdicated by 1909, but still continued to play a major role in Korean society) was known for his keen interest in all things modern. He sponsored the introduction of electric street lights and streetcar services, had Korea’s first telephone exchange installed in his palace, ordered the first theater to be built and the first Korean public park to be created.
The Imperial Dynasty Museum did not remain in the Changdeok Palace buildings for long. In 1912 it moved to a new, specially designed building. Unfortunately the building, an interesting example of the mixed Western-Japanese style of the 1910s, has not survived. It fell to the zeal of Korean nationalists in the early 1990s when they were eager to demolish most of the landmarks of the colonial period.
Shortly before, in 1910, the Imperial Dynasty Museum had to change its official name. In 1910 Korea became a Japanese colony, whereupon the Joseon Kingdom lost its imperial standing and was downgraded to merely a royal dynasty.
In the strictly hierarchical word of Confucian protocol it mattered ― there could be only one emperor within a state. So the museum had to be renamed the “Royal Yi Family Museum” ― this is how it remained until 1945. Alongside, since 1915 a separate museum was run by the Governor General Office (essentially, by the colonial administration).
After the liberation, in 1946, the museum had its name changed to the Deoksu Palace Museum of Arts (by that that time it had moved to the grounds of Deoksu Palace), and in 1969 it officially merged with the National Museum (formerly Governor General Office Museum).
When the museum was opened in 1909, it had 8,600 items, but by 1938 the number had more than doubled, reaching 18,800. This was a time when antiques were quite cheap, so the items the museum was looking for could be cheaply procured. The collection of the Governor General Office Museum was also growing with remarkable speed.
Throughout the colonial era, both major museums survived a number of reorganizations and relocations as well as established local branches. The first such branch was established by the Governor General Office Museum in the 1920s in the city of Gyeongju, which in the first millennia was the capital of the Silla Kingdom.
The 1920s were a golden age of archeological excavations in Gyeongju. New findings, including the now world famous golden crowns, were not moved to Seoul, but rather remained in Gyeongju (they are still there).
Other branches also largely dealt with ancient history and were located in those cities which were the major cultural and political centers of the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods. Aside from that, a separate history museum was opened in the city of Pyongyang, then officially Heijo, and yet another began to operate in the city of Gaeseong.
By the early 1940s, some Korean schools, predecessors to modern universities, acquired some small but valuable collections and established museums of their own. The idea of a museum began to take hold in Korea.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.