Seeking Nationalist Perspectives in the National Museum of Korea: How do Korean people wish to portray their history?
Truthfully, I thought upon entering the homepage of the National Museum of Korea, that I would be bombarded with Korean nationalism, and see very obvious efforts to present Korea’s story to its visitors. It turns out that this may apply more towards current North Korean propaganda efforts. The National Museum of Korea website actually presents various exhibitions that demonstrate open-mindedness and knowledge of multiple perspectives.
For one, the special exhibitions take a huge interest in international history and culture. Although nearly half of its collections are about Korean history, the other half is about Scandinavian history, Egyptian history, and even Japanese history. Furthermore, it presents aspects of Japanese culture in pleasant ways. In “Noh, Japanese Traditional Art”, the museum description highlights the longevity and strength of the Japanese art form, stating that it “boasts more than 600 years of history”. Because the Japanese imperialists made an effort to eradicate Korean history during the 20th century, I personally thought the Koreans would omit the charms of Japanese history from lasting bitter sentiments. However, that does not seem to be the case; the national museum seems to be democratic and civil towards neighboring countries despite historical complications.
Even so, there are biased presentations in the museum’s exhibition. They are subtle, but worth noticing.
First and foremost, it seems crucial to notice the spatial arrangement of the permanent exhibitions. There are six exhibition sections on three floors, with Korean history mainly being presented in the first floor. However, ‘Prehistory and Ancient History’ take up a much greater area than ‘Medieval and Early Modern History’ section. Although there are much more abundant materials and objects that remain from the later historical periods, the ancient periods are stressed enough to take up more space than more contemporary Korean history. This spatial arrangement indicates the importance of asserting Korean identity starting from the ancient times.
It is even more interesting to see how that section has been arranged - which categories have been created. The periods I expected to see were there: the Paleolithic (Chulmun), the Neolithic (Mumun), the Samhan from the Iron Age, and of course the three kingdoms Kokuryo, Silla, and Paekche. However, I also noticed that they have an entire room dedicated to the ‘Gaya’ and the ‘Buyeo’ (Puyo). The exhibition section description states that “each room documents those aspects which uniquely defined each of Korea’s different periods of ancient history”. The fact that nationally debated historical groups of East Asia have been included in the Korean history museum with equal weight to accepted Korean historical groups give visitors the idea that these controversial idea that these controversial groups were in fact a part of Korean history. It is no surprise that at the end of the description of each of these rooms, a connection to modern Korea is made. Furthermore, for objects with stylistic derivations from China, a unique trait of the object is highlighted to ensure the fact that Koreans were always a separate entity from China.
This type of exhibition is much different from a textbook’s portrayal because these are presentations of very tangible objects all categorized into certain theme. The portrayal does not have to be as chronological or comprehensive. I think it’s a greater way of highlighting Korean identity because artifacts and objects are all presented as a part of Korean history and the descriptions allow for little debate. It is also a much more visual presentation and seeing Korean historical objects make the existence of the Korean people in ancient times feel much more real. It may well be just as Beth McKillop puts it in “Creating History: Tomb Building in the DPRK in the 1990’s”, we are all constantly “changing historic site[s] to make it conform to a modern view”. And for South Korea, that may mean the existence of a Korean ‘minjok’ from a very long time ago.
Image: Korea Tourism Organization