Text and photos by Cathy Rose A. Garcia,
SEOUL — While most tourists flock to shooting locations of Korean dramas or shop for Korean cosmetics, often overlooked on their itinerary are the many museums in South Korea.
South Korea’s place in the art world has been cemented with the Gwangju and Busan biennales. In past years, Seoul has hosted retrospectives on Van Gogh, Renoir, Rodin, Warhol, and Picasso, while international artists regularly hold solo shows there.
Samsung’s Leeum Museum of Art boasts of Maman by Louise Bourgeois, while the Ho-am Museum houses a cast of Rodin’s The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais.
Several government-run museums, some of which offer free admission, provide a deeper understanding of Korean culture and history.
The National Museum of Korea is the largest in the country, and showcases Korean cultural assets. It has over 300,000 pieces in its collection, but only around 15,000 are displayed at a time.
Some of the must-see pieces are the 10-storey Gyeongcheonsa Pagoda (National Treasure No. 86) and a 5th century gold crown (National Treasure No. 191).
Korean contemporary art is displayed at the National Museum of Contemporary Art’s main branch in Gwacheon and its two Seoul branches — one inside Deoksu Palace and another next to Gyeongbok Palace.
For a quick introduction to modern Korean history, the place to go is the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, located along Gwanghwamun.
Through interactive displays (in English and Korean), visitors learn about the birth of the Republic of Korea — its struggles during the Japanese occupation, liberation in 1945, the Korean War, the country’s rapid economic development, and the Democratization movement.
A rooftop garden on the museum’s 8th floor offers expansive views of Seoul’s main road Gwanghwamun and its park, as well as Gyeongbok Palace and the mountains behind it.
Visitors are also given a chance to experience the Korean War using virtual reality goggles, as well as sit behind the President’s desk at a mock-up of the Cheong Wa Dae office.
The real Cheong Wa Dae — the presidential residence also known as Blue House because of its blue roof tiles — is just a 15-minute walk away from the museum. It has its own museum called Cheong Wa Dae Sarangchae, which is open to the public. There are exhibits there about the country’s presidents and history in the last 60 years.
‘GARDEN MUSEUM IN THE SKY’
Several museums are worth taking a trip outside Seoul for.
Museum SAN (Space Art Nature) is tucked away inside the Oak Valley resort in the mountains of Wonju, Gangwon province. “San” incidentally also means mountain in Korean.
Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who designed the museum, was quoted in a 2014 Financial Times interview as saying he wanted to “create a garden museum in the sky, a dreamlike museum like no other.”
Visitors walk through the sculpture garden amid trees covered in rust and yellow leaves to reach the main building. A stunning red archway by Alexander Liberman rises over a pathway to the museum, surrounded by pools of water reflecting the stunning fall foliage.
Nature, art, and architecture combine to make a visit to Museum SAN a memorable one. It has a Paper Gallery dedicated to Korean paper craft; the Cheongjo Gallery featuring a few Korean modern and contemporary art pieces; as well as a hall showcasing a work of video art pioneer Nam June Paik.
For some, the highlight are American artist James Turrell’s artworks — Sky Space, Horizon Room, Ganzfeld, and Wedgework. “The beauty of light and the sense of infinite space by Mr. Turrell will make you meditate on yourself,” the museum said.
STAY AT AN ART HOTEL
Haslla Art World, located in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, is not just a museum but also a hotel. Overlooking the East Sea, the museum-hotel boasts of stunning views, a sculpture park, stylish rooms, and quirky art pieces.
Haslla is designed by artist couple Ok-yung Choi and Shin-jung Park, who wanted to bring art closer to the people. The museum features a hodge podge mix of colorful paintings, sculptures, and installations, which are very “Instagram-able.”
A tunnel connecting the museum to a Pinocchio exhibition, may remind fans of Netflick’s Stranger Things of dark passageways in Upside Down.
On display at the Pinocchio exhibit are toys, paintings, and souvenirs — all in the image of the beloved fictional character. A museum docent says the owner chose to focus on Pinocchio as a way to make art more relatable to children, and even adults.