Thursday, 20 September 2012

National Museum of Korea

During the last month or so I went the National Museum of Korea four times.

Image Source: Korea Herald
The first was to see an exhibit of artifacts from Turkey that were owned by the sultans of the Ottoman empire. The heavily Islam influenced artworks were truly exquisite and included some of the sultans’ ceremonial weapons (swords and rifles) inlaid with mother-of-pearl and other jewels, golden diadems and other jewelry, paintings, calligraphy, garments and chests for keeping the Korean in. While I have little interest in visiting the Middle East (I prefer mild or tropical climates over dry, arid climates), I would definitely like to visit Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, because it has such a rich cultural history. As the hub for the historic Silk Road, Istanbul became a grand mixing pot for cultures and between the Orient, Europe and Africa.

My second visit to the National Museum of Korea was to attend a free jazz performance—saxophone with piano accompaniment. It was held in the museum’s amphitheater, and while the music was good, the seating was rather uncomfortable. I didn’t stay through the whole performance and instead went to my favourite pizza restaurant with a friend.

My third and fourth visits to the National Museum of Korea were as part of guided tours for the Royal Asiatic Society of Korea, of which I am a member.

The first tour looked at a special exhibition of Korean artifacts from American museums. During the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean War many priceless Korean artifacts were looted from the peninsula or bought at very cheap prices from poor and desperate people. A number of these artifacts ended up in different museums, particularly in Japan and America. For this special exhibition some of the more interesting artworks held by American museums loan the pieces to Korea. Included in the exhibit were beautiful ceramics showing old a Korea’s superior ceramic techniques and jewelry boxes exquisitely inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Large Pensive Buddha
One of two large pensive Buddhas
owned by the National Museum of Korea.

The second guided tour I attended was last night—the tour looked at the Buddhist sculptures on display at the National Museum. The Buddha statues are on the third floor towards the back of the museum so usually when people visit the museum they are so tired of browsing through the cavernous exhibition halls that they hardly have the energy to go to the third floor and often miss out on these beautiful sculptures. On display at the museum is a rather large Pensive Buddha—which is one of the less common poses for depictions of the Buddha. Pensive Buddha sculptures are generally quite small, and meant to be carried easily while travelling. The one on display at the National Museum is definitely not meant for travel. It is, I guess, around a meter tall. It is also intriguing as the back of the sculpture which is usually not well crafted is full of detail, suggesting that this sculpture was meant to be viewed from all sides, not just the front. The Pensive Buddha is my favourite portrayal of the Buddha. The Pensive Buddha shows the Buddha with his right leg crossed over his left knee, and while resting his right elbow on his right leg he touches his chin or cheek with his right hand, clearly in deep contemplation. It is somewhat reminiscent of Rodin’s The Thinker. The portrayal is usually of the Buddha before enlightenment, while he is still considering the big questions of life and death. The other Buddha postures found in Buddhist art are the Seated Buddha in a meditative posture, the Standing Buddha and the Reclining Buddha. The Seated Buddha and Standing Buddha are the most common depictions of the Buddha with the Reclining Buddha and Pensive Buddha less common. The Pensive Buddha is only found in the Far East (China, Korea and Japan). While the Reclining Buddha is found all over Asia, it is more common in South East Asia and very uncommon in Korean—I have heard that there is one big Reclining Buddha in Gwangju, but am yet to see it. The National Museum of Korea has two large Pensive Buddhas but only display one of these per year. They are alternated on Buddha’s birthday every year. The one currently on display is the more decorative of the two and has a diadem with decoration reminiscent of Persian symbolism, making it a particularly valuable piece as it validates the great religio-cultural exchange all over the Orient.

I will be returning to the National Museum of Korea again next month to join a tour on some of the artifacts on display outside in the museum’s garden, like some of the pagodas, for which Korea is particularly known.


BoerinBallingskap said...

Ek is baie lief vir museums en volgens my beskeie mening, is die Nasionale Museum een van die bestes ter wereld. Ongelukkig bly ek ver en kon dit nog net een keer besoek.

Skryfblok said...

Dis 'n beslis 'n wonderlike belewenis. Toe ek die eerste keer na Korea toe gekom het in 2006 was hulle nog besig om die nuwe geboue te bou. Met my tweede koms na Korea was die geboue reeds staande en nou is daar 'n pragtige dammetjie met lowerige aangeplante bome en altyd interesante uitstallings.

Ek hou ook baie van die Oorlogsmuseum hier in Seoul en besoek dit ook ten minste een of twee keer per jaar.

Christine said...

I loved the National Museum. I enjoyed their Tea Horse Road exhibit that was there a few years ago. There was also a good exhibit of stuff from a Vietnamese shipwreck. The Museum has some very good stuff there. I wish I were around to go to some of those events.
Are you still coming to New York City sometime for the Museum of Modern Art?

Skryfblok said...


I don't have any plans to visit the US any time soon, but if I come MoMA is definitely on my must-see list.