Bridging cultural currents


SEOUL — It has long been known, though usually not mentioned in public discourse in Japan, that Korea has played a vital role in the transmission of Chinese culture to the country, starting with the introduction of Buddhism in 538. As of Oct. 28, the 60th anniversary of Korea’s National Independence Day, South Korea now has a new museum, the National Museum of Korea, that explores the country’s wider cultural influences.

Not only does the museum — which took eight years to build — celebrate Korea’s artistic heritage, but in an attempt to document the full sweep of Silk Road culture, it also places its art and artifacts squarely in the context of greater Asian civilization. To that end, and perhaps surprisingly for a national museum, the collection includes artifacts from China and Japan, as well as places as distant as Central Asia and Indonesia.

Seunghe Sun, the curator in the Department of Special Exhibitions, told The Japan Times recently that one of the aims of the museum is to show the bridge that exists between East Asian cultures. “The continuum of experiences in these exhibition spaces is designed to offer visitors a glimpse of the similarities in the art traditions of Korea and Japan throughout our long history,” she said.

Located in Yongsan Family Park in Seoul, the museum — now the world’s sixth largest, at 300,000 sq. meters — is scenically sited between the landmark Namsan Mountain and the Han River. The exhibition space includes five main spaces: an archaeology gallery, a history gallery, two fine arts galleries and an Asian art gallery.

The Asian arts gallery elucidates the connections between the arts and cultural traditions throughout Asia. One example in the Buddhist sculpture section is a stunning, seventh-century bronze image of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, which is strikingly similar to an undated sculpture of Maitreya at the Koryuji Temple in Kyoto. The existence of this statue is just one of many well-documented connections between the Japanese temple and Korea: Koryuji was built in 603 by Hata no Kawakatsu, a descendent of immigrants from Korea’s Old Silla kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 668).

One of the delightful surprises of the museum is the attention given to providing beautifully designed and suitably subdued exhibition spaces for Korea’s national treasures. treasures themselves are both a testament to the sweep of cultural influence throughout Asia, and to the impact of other Asian cultures on Korea.

For instance, a sixth- or seventh-century mountain-shaped bronze incense burner, excavated from the Baekje Kingdom’s Neungsan-ri monastic site in 1993, is an incredible relic that is a true crowd pleaser, according to Sun.

While similar incense burners made from pottery were common in China during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), this is the only surviving example in Korea. The mountain shape derives from a Daoist belief, originating in China, that paradise is a mountain inhabited by immortals who possess the elixir of eternal life. The incense burner is divided into three parts: The base is a series of swirling waves, where a dragon’s head rises dramatically from its base, echoing the sea’s movement; the body is in the shape of a blooming lotus flower, with each petal adorned with mythical creatures; and the lid is a series of mountain peaks on which 39 animals and 16 immortals joyfully play. The elaborate composition is then topped off by a mythical phoenix.

Another magnificent national treasure on display is a crown excavated from a royal tomb site in Hwangnamdaechong that dates back to the fifth century. Such ceremonial crowns, symbols of the authority and power of the king, typically included antler- and tree-shaped decorations. On this one, the trees and antlers are adorned with small, round golden leaves and comma-shaped jade pieces.

But the antler/tree combination was not a local one, and the crown and others like it provide yet another link in the chain of early cultural exchange in Asia. It is believed that the motif was transmitted from Eurasian nomads to the Old Silla kingdom, where it came to symbolize a sacred tree that linked earth with heaven. In this time before the arrival of Buddhism in Korea, the kings acted as shamans, transmitting the messages of heaven to their people.

The galleries on the first floor are devoted to archaeology and history and display artifacts in permanent exhibitions that range from the Paleolithic Period (prior to 10,000 B.C.) to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The archaeology gallery’s exhibition spaces span from the Paleolithic to the Unified Silla (668-935) Period, when Korea was first unified under King Munmu of Silla. After an eight-year campaign, the king completed his subjugation of the kingdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje in 668.

Interweaving presentations of Korean history and culture, the displays provide an excellent historical context for artifacts from these times. The history gallery houses rooms devoted to the chronological developments of Korean history, including artifacts and displays that relate to the written language, the stelae of kings and tomb artifacts. The exhibit also portrays the political and legal systems of Korean dynasties and the influence of Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism on Korean culture.

The museum provides an embarrassing wealth of other archaeological artifacts as well. One of its most enjoyable aspects is the building’s dramatic use of spaces, in which the artifacts are placed to great effect. A 10-story stone pagoda (known as a tap in Korean) dated 1348 from the monastic site of Gyeongcheonsa soars 13 meters from its perch in the museum’s atrium. Similar to the brick pagodas of China and the wooden ones of Japan that were created to hold relics of the Buddha, the Korean stone pagodas are works of true craftsmanship. Other stone pagodas dot the landscape of the museum grounds, adding an air of authenticity to a beautiful series of outdoor public spaces.

The concept for the museum is a radical departure from tradition, since it provides a forum for exploring Korean art and its heritage in the context of national and regional history. Museum planners have stressed the need to actively incorporate an understanding of history into the process of art appreciation. Furthermore, the facility is not meant just for viewing. With its libraries, auditoriums, seminar rooms, special exhibit spaces and research activities, it creates an environment in which the pursuit of knowledge of Korean, and Asian, arts and culture is an ongoing process that revitalizes both art and historical studies in Korea.