The National Museum of Korea is the flagship museum of Korean history and art in South Korea and is the cultural organization that represents Korea. Since its establishment in 1945, the museum has been committed to various studies and research activities in the fields of archaeology, history, and art, continuously developing a variety of exhibitions and education programs.
The National Museum of Korea help visitors to understand and appreciate Korean history and culture through diverse experiences, events, and exhibitions. National Museum of Korea’s permanent collection offers a fascinating journey through thousands of years of history, from simple hand axes of the Paleolithic Age, to a splendid gold crown from the Three Kingdoms Period, exquisite celadon from the Goryeo Dynasty, masterful paintings from the Joseon Dynasty, and photographs from modern times. By immersing themselves in such captivating artifacts and artworks, visitors will understand the deep national pride that Koreans feel for their unique culture.
National Museum of Korea strives to provide visitors with the most entertaining and informative cultural experiences, introducing various cultures through an array of exhibitions and informative programs. The museum’s vast collection is presented in rotating displays in our six permanent exhibition halls. National Museum of Korea also regularly feature major special exhibitions on important themes, and provide exciting educational programs for children. In addition, we have recently upgraded our facilities and rest areas, to make your visit even more pleasant. The museum’s enchanting garden is the perfect place for a leisurely stroll during any season of the year.
The National Museum of Korea is working hard to make your museumexperience more pleasant and enjoyable, by planning a number of exciting upcomingexhibitions, providing docents to give tours in six different languages, and entertaining and educating kids in our Children’s Museum. We have many educational programs specifically designed to suit different groups so that information about our numerous relics and works of art is more accessible to everyone. You can also attend fabulousworld-class performances and concerts at our Yong Theater, or simply enjoy theafternoon in the tree-filled park which is adjacent to the museum.
Emperor Sunjong established Korea’s first museum, the Imperial Household Museum, in 1909. The collections of the Imperial Household Museum at Changgyeonggung and the Japanese Government General Museum administered during Japanese rule of Korea became the nucleus of the National Museum’s collection, which was established when South Korea regained independence in 1945.
When Japan was defeated in the Second World War, Korea regained its independence. Upon liberation in 1945, Korea took over the Joseon Government-General Museum and renamed it the “National Museum” (國立博物館). At that time, the museum’s organization and exhibitions were insignificant compared to what exists today. Nevertheless, the museum played a significant role in restoring the nation’s damaged cultural pride and correcting false historical images of Korea.
The National Museum was severely weakened by the devastation of the Korean War. Kim Chaewon, the director of the museum, asked President Syngman Rhee to provide an appropriate space for the museum to preserve and exhibit its collections. Rhee ordered part of Deoksugung Palace, which had been destroyed during the war, to be repaired and used as the new National Museum, which opened to the public in June 1955.
In 1972, twenty-seven years after its inauguration, the National Museum finally took possession of its own building, which was located inside Gyeongbokgung Palace. Designed and built by the Cultural Heritage Administration, the 14,000 square-meter building was constructed as a replica of a national treasure-level wooden building. The museum was officially renamed “The National Museum of Korea” (國立中央博物館) at this time.
In 1986, a project began to transform the former Joseon Government- General building into a museum, with an initial investment of KRW 27.7 billion. This museum opened on August 21, 1986, with about 7,500 relics on display in twenty exhibition rooms. New equipment included special lighting, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, and fire and anti-theft systems in every gallery and storage room.Some of the new museum’s special exhibitions included “Korean Painting: 1850–1950” (1987), “The Beauty of Korea: Traditional Costumes, Ornaments, and Cloth Wrappings” (1988),
“Buddhist Sculpture of the Three Kingdoms Period”(1990), and “Special Exhibition of the Paintings of Kim Hong-do” (1995). “The Beauty of Korea,” which was held during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, won universal acclaim.During the 1990s, the NMK began a prolific cultural exchange with its overseas counterparts. In 1990, a Korean gallery opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, followed by another at the Victoria and Albert Museum in England. Korean cultural properties have since been displayed in museums throughout the world, including the USA, Japan, France, the UK, Spain, Belgium, and New Zealand.
The NMK’s relocation to the former Joseon General-Government building stirred a considerable amount of controversy, because many Koreans saw that particular building as a symbol of colonialism.Since the public was so opposed to the display of precious Korean properties inside this building, the Korean government decided to demolish the building and build a new museum at a different location. The chosen site was Yongsan Family Park in Seoul. The proposed project would require about ten years to complete, so in December 1996, the NMK was temporarily moved to the renovated Social Education Center in Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Special exhibitions during this period included “Korean Ancient Pottery” (1997), “The Tiger in Korean Art” (1998), “Beauteous Kumgangsan, Diamond Mountain” (1999), “New Millennium Special Exhibition: Hangeul, the Korean Alphabet” (2000), “Genre Paintings of the Joseon Period” (2002), and “Unified Silla” (2003). More than 12,000 relics were donated to the NMK between 2000 and 2004, confirming the positive response of the Korean people to the museum’s relocation to Yongsan.
On October 28, 2005, the NMK reopened in its new permanent home in Yongsan, on a site of 307,227 m² (building area: 45,438 m² ). Yongsan, the geographic heart of Seoul, is backed by the expansive Mt. Namsan and fronted by the Hangang. Yongsan is also the true cultural center of Seoul, sitting just south of the five palaces of the Joseon Dynasty and the War Memorial, and north of the National Library and the Seoul Arts Center.
The new museum, which boasts more extensive and convenient facilities than its predecessors, attracted more than 100,000 visitors in its first three days, reaching one million in attendance after 44 days, and ten million in about three and a half years. In 2009, the NMK attracted 2,730,204 visitors, which ranked as the highest attendance figure in Asia and 10th worldwide (according to the Art Newspaper).
Reborn as a “cultural complex” that all Koreans can enjoy, the new NMK has updated its mission to not only to preserve and display relics, but also to host a variety of programs and cultural events in conjunction with the Children’s Museum and permanent exhibitions. Beginning in 2008, the NMK offered free admission to all of its permanent exhibits, thereby enhancing the popularity of the museum and altering the perception that museums are for one-time visits only. The NMK also reinforced its numerous exchange programs with overseas museums, holding special internationally themed exhibitions, such as “The Glory of Persia” (2008), “Egypt, the Great Civilization: Pharaohs and Mummies” (2009), “Korean Museums: 100 Years in Remembrance” (a 100th anniversary celebration of Korean Museums) (2009), and “Gods, Heroes and Mortals: Art and Life in Ancient Greece” (2010).
Space as Centerpiece
The basic concept of the new museum is to reinterpret the traditional architectural spirit of Korea in a contemporary way. An open plaza connects the museum’s two main wings, making them appear to be one grand building. The open plaza is designed to evoke maru (wooden floor), an architectural element unique to Korea. Open to all visitors, the plaza serves as a gateway to every point in the museum, including the exhibition halls, the special exhibition gallery, and the staff offices.
With Mountains Behind, Water in Front
With Mountains Behind, Water in FrontMountains and water are pivotal aspects of the Korean landscape. Like yin and yang, mountains and water coexist as elements of harmony and balance. Together they generate prosperity and stability. In accordance with traditional Korean architecture, the NMK building is located deep within its lot, far from the boundaries. The museum faces south, with mountains behind and water in front.
Harmony between Nature and Culture
Harmony between Nature and CultureAt the core of the museum’s architecture is a harmonious arrangement of the central pond, the outdoor exhibition area, and the main facility. The natural scenery of Yongsan Family Park provides a graceful setting for the NMK building. Waterfalls, streams, and green spaces have been cultivated to create a useful and refined cultural space.
The Cultural Center of Seoul
The Cultural Center of SeoulA secondary gate has been planned on the north side of the National Museum of Korea in conjunction with the ongoing development of the Yongsan area and the planned relocation of the nearby US military base. The gate will be part of the central axis of Seoul and will make the National Museum of Korea the center of the first museum complex in Korea.
The museum is divided into three floors. Symbolically, the left of the museum is supposed to represent the past, while the right side of the museum represents the future. The ground floor contains parks; gardens of indigenous plants; waterfalls and pools; and a collection of pagodas, stupas, lanterns, and steles (including National Treasure of Korea No. 2, the Great Bell of Bosingak, the exemplar of Korean bells of the Joseon period).
On the first floor is the Prehistory and Ancient History Gallery, which contains approximately 4,500 artifacts from the Paleolithic to the Unified Silla era excavated from sites across Korea. The nine exhibition rooms in the gallery are the Palaeolithic Room, the Neolithic Room, the Bronze Age & Gojoseon Room, the Proto Three Kingdoms Room, the Goguryeo Room, the Baekje Room, the Gaya Room, and the Silla Room. Ranging from chipped stone handaxes to luxurious ancient royal ornaments, the relics displayed here show the long journey taken by early settlers on the Peninsula towards developing their unique culture.
Artifacts from important prehistoric sites and settlements such the Bangudae Petroglyphs and Songgung-ni are found in the Neolithic and Bronze Age Rooms.
Also on the first floor is the Medieval and Early Modern History Gallery, which showcases the cultural and historical heritage throughout the Unified Silla, Balhae, Goryeo, and Joseon periods. The eight rooms of the gallery include the Unified Silla Room, Balhae Room, Goryeo Room, and the Joseon Room.
The second floor contains the Donation Gallery and the Calligraphy and Painting Gallery, which contains 890 pieces of art that showcase the traditional and religious arts of Korea in line and color. The Calligraphy and Painting Gallery is divided into four rooms: the Painting Room, the Calligraphy Room, the Buddhist Paintings Room, and the Sarangbang (Scholar’s Studio).
The Donation Gallery holds 800 pieces of art donated from the private collections of collectors. The gallery is divided into eleven rooms: the Lee Hong-kun Collection Room, the Kim Chong-hak Collection Room, the Yu Kang-yul Collection Room, the Park Young-sook Collection Room, the Choi Young-do Collection Room, the Park Byong-rae Collection Room, the Yoo Chang-jong Collection Room, the Kaneko Kazushige Collection Room, the Hachiuma Tadasu Collection Room, the Iuchi Isao Collection Room, and the Other Collection Room.
The third floor contains the Sculpture and Crafts Gallery, with 630 pieces that represent Korean Buddhist sculpture and craftwork. Highlights of the gallery include Goryeo Celadon wares and National Treasure of Korea No. 83, Bangasayusang (or Pensive Bodhisattva). The five rooms of the gallery are the Metal Arts Room, the Celadon Room, the Buncheong Ware Room, the White Porcelain Room, and the Buddhist Sculpture Room.
Also on the third floor is the Asian Arts Gallery, which contains 970 pieces that explore the similarities and divergences of Asian art and the confluence of Asian and Western art via the Silk Road. The five rooms are the Indian & Southeast Asian Art Room, the Central Asian Art Room, the Chinese Art Room, the Sinan Undersea Relics Room, and the Japanese Art Room.
The museum contains over 310,000 pieces in its collection with about 15,000 pieces on display at one time. It displays relics and artifacts throughout six permanent exhibition galleries such as Prehistory and Ancient History Gallery, Medieval and Early Modern History Gallery, Donation Gallery, Calligraphy and Painting Gallery, Asian Art Gallery, and Sculpture and Crafts Gallery. It is the sixth largest museum in the world in terms of floor space, now covering a total of 295,551 square metres (3,180,000 sq ft). In order to protect the artifacts inside the museum, the main building was built to withstand a magnitude 6.0 Richter Scale earthquake. The display cases are equipped with shock-absorbent platforms. There is also an imported natural lighting system which utilizes sunlight instead of artificial lights and a specially designed air-conditioning system. The museum is made from fire-resistant materials and has special exhibition halls, education facilities, a children’s museum, huge outdoor exhibition areas, restaurants, cafes, and shops.
Gold Crown, National Treasure of Korea No. 191
The Fifth-century Silla gold crown was excavated from the North tomb of Hwangnamdaechong in Gyeongju. More ornaments, including a silver belt ornament inscribed (보인대)’Buindae (“Madame’s belt”), were found in the North tomb than in the South tomb, suggesting that the North tomb is a woman’s. The gold crown reflects the owner’s political and social class.
Pensive Bodhisattva, or Gilt-bronze Maitreya in Meditation, National Treasure No. 83)
This Bodhisattva, from the early Seventh-century, sits with one leg over the other, lost in thought with fingers on its cheeks. The pose is derived from that of the Buddha contemplating the life of human beings. This statue wears a flat crown called the ‘Three Mountain Crown’ or ‘Lotus Crown.’ The torso is naked, adorned by a simple necklace. There are remarkable similarities with the wooden Pensive Bodhisattva at the Koryuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, which is believed to have been founded by a Silla monk. It is likely, then, that this statue was created in Silla. The well-balanced shape, however, and elegant and refined craftsmanship is typical of the Baekje period.
Incense Burner, Celadon with Openwork, National Treasure of Korea No. 95
This Twelfth-century incense burner represents some of the best quality Goryeo celadon. It is composed of a cover (with a central hole for releasing incense), a burner, and a support. Above the hole for incense is a curved knob with a Seven Treasure design incised to aid the release of scent.
Ten-Story Pagoda from Gyeongcheonsa Temple, National Treasure of Korea No. 86
The “Gyeongcheonsa Ten-Story Pagoda” (경천사 십층석탑, 敬天寺十層石塔) was originally erected at the monastery Gyeongcheonsa in the fourth year (1348) of King Chungmok of Goryeo. In 1907, it was illegally smuggled to Japan by a Japanese court official, but was returned in 1918 at the behest of British and American journalists, E. Bethell and H. Hulbert. In 1960, it was restored to Gyoengbokgung Palace, but proved difficult to conserve because of acid rain and weathering. So, it was dismantled again in 1995, to be housed inside in the National Museum of Korea’s ‘Path to History’ when the museum reopened in 2005.
Album of Genre Painting by Danwon, Treasure of Korea No. 527
The Eighteenth-century painter Kim Hong-do, also known as Danwon, is known for his humorous and candid paintings of the lives of common people. This album consists of twenty-five paintings, each focusing on figures without background features. Kim’s paintings appear sketchy, yet show expressive brush strokes and balanced composition. It is presumed that this style arose in Kim’s late 30s, the album being completed when he was about 40 years old.
The Oegyujanggak Uigwe
Gyujanggak was a royal library established on the grounds of Changdeokgung Palace in the capital by order of King Jeongjo, the 22nd ruler of the Joseon, in 1776. Over time, the library also developed into a state-sponsored research institution. In 1782, a royal library annex called Oegyujanggak was established on Gangwha Island to preserve important documents related to the royal family more systematically and securely than possible in the capital.
Oegyujanggak housed copies of writings, calligraphy, and drawings by former kings as well as the royal genealogies, uigwe, and other such items. As such it was a repository of royal family culture. It includes records of the preparations for state-sponsored events and ceremonies involving key members of the Joseon royal family. The text explains every process in detail and is supported by illustrations elaborately drawn by hand. These served as references for later generations organizing similar ceremonies or events. The Uigwe began to be produced in the 15th century, during early Joseon, and the practice continued to the end of the kingdom in the early 20th century. They preserve core elements of Confucian culture, which revered ritual and propriety.
These works also show the governing philosophy and systems by which the Joseon state was run. Their historical and cultural value has been recognized globally, as the “Royal Protocols of Joseon Dynasty”* were inscribed into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2007. Two hundred and ninety-seven volumes of the Protocols that were looted in 1866 during the French campaign against Korea were kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. They were repatriated in April and June 2011 in four separate installments. A special exhibition, The Return of the Oegyujanggak Uigwe from France: Records of the State Rites of the Joseon Dynasty, was held from 19 July to 18 September 2011. In June 2011, before of the exhibition, the museum showcased five copies of the records to the media, along with the silk covers of other volumes.
Culture has only flourished in countries that have proactively engaged with other countries, which is why NMK has become much more active in international exhibition exchanges. Recently, we organized huge overseas exhibitions of Korean heritages to promote Korean culture in other parts of the world, and we regularly host major exhibitions introducing the history and culture of other countries, as part of our “Overseas Civilizations” series. These exhibitions help increase the visibility and esteem of Korean culture in cities around the world, while allowing our own visitors to encounter diverse civilizations from different parts of the globe. These efforts are aimed at inspiring our visitors to coexist with global transformations.
NMK seeks to be a catalyst for dialogue between regions, nations, cultures, and academia, not to merely serve as a window to the past and present. With the goal of igniting communication, NMK will help our nation open its mind and perspective in order to view the world without prejudice, while inspiring creativity. To this end, we will continue to collect, preserve, and research exceptional artifacts. These endeavors will help us create fabulous exhibitions and educational programs.
NMK pledges to continually enhance its status as a world-class cultural agency, and to be a museum that all visitors can have meaningful experience. We hope that you have a memorable time with your family and friends while enjoying our many cultural programs.