Museum displays home articles of ‘typical’ family from Seoul


SUITA, Osaka Pref. — South Korea may never have felt closer to Japan than it has this year. Not only are the two nations cohosting the World Cup later this year, but a three-day tour to Seoul nowadays costs less than 30,000 yen, and Korean food is popular across Japan.

Still, having been to a country is one thing and getting to know life there is another. One way to learn more about Koreans and their lifestyle is by viewing their living environment.

This insight has in part been accomplished by the “Seoul Style 2002” exhibition that opened last month at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, featuring Korean household items. The display runs through July 16.

“This is an exhibition totally different from conventional ones, because what came first (as an idea) was not a country but an individual family who happened to be chosen,” said Toshio Asakura, who organized the exhibition and is professor of social research at the museum. “They do not represent South Korea, but by seeing what they have and what their lives are like, I hope visitors will have a better idea about South Korea.”

More than 3,000 items from the Seoul apartment of Lee Won Tae’s family, including furniture, electric appliances, clothes and even pay slips, are on display in a re-created apartment in the museum.

Lee, 43, a researcher at a semigovernmental body in South Korea, was first approached through a contact by Koji Sato, associate professor at the museum.

Lee and his family — his wife Kim Yong Suk, 40, their two children and a 74-year-old grandmother — agreed to trade in more than 80 percent of what they had, or almost everything that could be replaced, as Lee and his wife both had studied ethnology and understood the importance of the exhibition, Sato said.

Lee’s family now lives in the apartment with new items replacing all the items on display, paid for by the museum. The old items will stay with the museum, he said.

On the first floor of the special exhibition hall, Lee’s three-bedroom apartment, about 80 sq. meters, welcomes visitors just as it was on the 10th floor of the 12-story building in Seoul, though there is no ceiling.

When Kim came to see the re-created flat, she was surprised to find how similar the items were displayed to the way they had been used.

Going through the front door, visitors can see the couple’s bedroom on the left, with the wife’s makeup items and family photos in front of a dressing mirror.

Laundry hangs in the bathroom, next to the bedroom, and Korean newspapers are on a sofa table in the living room. In the kitchen, a refrigerator contains kimchi.

In the study room for Kim’s 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, Korean books and stationery are scattered on a desk. Their bunk beds are in the grandmother’s room, which includes a massive chest and wardrobe, full of futons and clothes, as well as desktop computers that the children used.

“Visitors are welcome to open and touch any items in the re-created apartment as long as the items are put back where they were,” Asakura said.

“The social life of each family member can also be observed outside the apartment,” he said, referring to the children’s classroom, Lee’s office and the food stall that have also been re-created around the apartment with the recorded voices of Korean children and vendors playing in the background.

On the second floor, visitors can see 17 lifetime events that an ordinary South Korean experiences, including birth, going to school, military service and a funeral.

All in all, the exhibition is about Lee’s family rather than an average South Korean family, but Sato said it had to be a particular family because there is no better way to understand a foreign culture than by getting to know someone in particular.