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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

South Korea: National Museum of Korea

November 19th, 2010 · 2 Comments

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This was a good day to stay indoors in Korea. While we had bright sun all day, when I went out this morning the temperature was down to 1 degree Celsius, which is 34 degrees Fahrenheit. But instead of staying in my room up on the 10th floor of the Soengbuk Holiday Inn on the north side of Seoul I went underground.

That is the best way to get around the second largest city in the world. I wanted to go all the way across Seoul to the National Museum of Korea. Yesterday I had gone about half that distance in a taxi from Seoul Station, where Korea’s high-speed bullet train from Daegu took me. That taxi ride took more than an hour through the Seoul’s impossible traffic and cost me about $20. Today I took the subway from the hotel past Seoul Station and on to the museum in about one-third of the time and 1/20th of the cost.

Besides being much faster and much less expensive, Seoul’s subway system is simple to use, clean, and punctual. This was the last mode of transportation that I wanted to experience here — subways, trains, taxis, and planes have all served me well in this most efficient country. I didn’t have the opportunity to take a ferry (a good way to get to Jeju Island from some cities) or drive a car or ride a bike or motorcycle (bad ideas with all the traffic here).

While I appreciate the Soengbuk Holiday Inn, after a few hours of leisure in my room and the coffee shop, I had still more of this fabulous country to see. This hotel in several respects is my favorite of all the hotels I have called my home away from home in this country. The service makes a big difference. Within the first few minutes of my arrival back at the hotel the bell captain took care of three problems for me.

One problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the computer monitor my hotel room. Now, for a moment think about the import of those words “computer monitor in my hotel room.” How many American hotels routinely provide their guests with a room computer? The bell captain immediately diagnosed that problem as a loose cable.

Computer use in Korea is even more common than in the U.S. The Korea Herald had an article reporting on a publication from the statistical office of the European Union on Internet use by citizens of the Group of 20 major economies. Among people aged 16-74, 77 percent of South Koreans were Internet users in 2008. Canada ranked second with 73 percent (2007 data), while the U.S. was third with 72 percent in figures recorded in 2008.

Since I haven’t taken a subway anywhere in the world for about half a century, it was an experience for me. My only other experience today was to visit the National Museum of Korea. You might think, “One whole day at a museum?” Actually, I could have spent a week there.

This is the sixth largest museum in the world and one of the newest, opening just five years ago. The modernity of the building contrasts wonderfully with the history that it displays.

The National Museum of Korea, the Reflecting Pool, and the Pavilion with Celadon Roof Tiles

The National Museum of Korea, the Reflecting Pool, and the Pavilion with Celadon Roof Tiles

Click on the picture above to enlarge

As big and impressive as this museum is, I hadn’t planned to visit it until I was leafing through the Ariana Airlines magazine at the end of my trip from Jeju Island to Daegu, when I had to turn off my iPad. In the magazine I noticed that the museum now has a month-long special exhibition of “Masterpieces of Goryeo Buddhist Paintings.” The Kingdom of Goryeo was a Korean state established in the year 918. That’s the origin of the name that we now pronounce as Korea. The kingdom lasted until 1392 — a century before Columbus discovered America — when the Joseon dynasty replaced it, in turn lasting until 1897, when Japan annexed Korea. Essentially, Goryeo was Buddhist while the Joseon dynasty (also known as Chosun) was Confucian.

I saw the Buddhist paintings. Most of the paintings are on silk and date from about 1200 to about 1330. About 160 still remain around the world. The National Museum of Korea succeeded in bringing together 61 paintings, including 27 from Japanese collections, ten from U.S. collections, five from European collections, and 19 from Korean collections. In addition, the exhibition features 20 Buddhist paintings from China’s Southern Song and Yuan Dynasties and Japan’s Kamakura period, showing trends in East Asian Buddhist painting over a similar time period. Also on display are five Buddhist paintings from the early Joseon era, inheritors to the tradition of Goryeo Buddhist painting, along with 22 statues of the Buddha and metal crafts from the Goryeo era, for a total of 108 paintings and other artworks.

I saw many young monks visiting the exhibition. I also saw more Westerners today that all the previous days I have spent in this country. What I didn’t see — not at the museum or any place in South Korea — was any beggars. Not one beggar — not even one monk with a begging bowl.

In the museum gift shop I bought a gift for myself. One of the five scrolls from the early Joseon era on display is the Buddha of healing and medicine called in Mahayana Buddhism, the “Medicine Buddha.” The gift shop had one remaining acrylic representation of this scroll. Originally created in 1565, it is now enshrined in a substance little imagined half a millennium ago.

An Enlargement of the Medicine Buddha in Acrylic

An Enlargement of the Medicine Buddha in Acrylic

Click on the picture above to enlarge

After a couple of hours at this special exhibit, I needed a break. The obvious break room for me was the museum’s Reflecting Pool Restaurant, which indeed provided me with a table looking out on the reflecting pool in front. A small mixed greens salad and a cup of tea was all that I needed. I didn’t even see kimchi on the menu — the first meal in Korea that I didn’t have a chance to enjoy it.

While waiting for service at the restaurant, I read through some more of Mary Oliver’s poems on my iPod Touch. The line that hit me the hardest came from her poem, “The Summer Day.” She wrote:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.

As I looked out at the beauty around the reflecting pool — the trees in all shades of color, a pavilion with celadon roof tiles, the shimmering water of the pool — and reflected on the beauty that I had seen, I began to formulate my answer to Mary Oliver’s question. Tell me, what is your answer?

Then, after a suitable repast and rest at the restaurant, I walked through all of the displays on each of the three floors of museum. It contains more than 220,000 pieces in its collection with about 13,000 pieces on display at any one time.

Ten-Story Pagoda

Ten-Story Pagoda

Click on the picture above to enlarge

Lots of history in this stone. Monks erected it in 1348 at the Gyeongcheon Temple. Its base shows lions, arhats (someone who has achieved enlightenment), and scenes from the novel Journey to the West. One of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, Journey to the West appeared anonymously in the 1590s. Known in English simply as Monkey, this novel is a fictionalized account of the legends surrounds the pilgrimage to India (known in China as the Western Regions) of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang from 629 to 645. He traveled to India so that he could obtain the sutras, including the “Heart Sutra,” which he translated into Chinese and a copy of which now hangs in my living room.

The museum displays relics and artifacts throughout six permanent exhibition galleries such as the archaeological gallery, the historical gallery, and several fine arts galleries. I saw stunning statues of Buddhas and works printed before Gutenberg’s so-called discovery.

Healing Buddha in Stone from the 8th Century

Healing Buddha in Stone from the 8th Century

Click on the picture above to enlarge

I saw the gold crown that the king of Silla wore in the 5th century.

The Crown of the King of Silla

The Crown of the King of Silla

Click on the picture above to enlarge

The beauty of it all is that Korea continues to treasure its long history as much as it values its modernization and economic progress. May we do the same.


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Posted in: Asia

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Diane Stawiarska // Dec 8, 2010 at 5:50 am

    Hello, What a wonderful description of your travels. I am just here for the first time on business. I love it here and feel that I am living in a treasure of culture. The people are wonderful and the history fascinating.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • 2 David Mendosa // Dec 8, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Dear Diane,

    Enjoy your journey in Korea! It is indeed a surprising and wonderful country.