Friday, 4 November 2005

First Trip to Korea - A Journal (Part 11)

After 12 months of preparation, the National Museum of Korea was opened at the new site in Ichon on 28 October afternoon. Unfortunately I missed it because I went on the morning and the official opening ceremony had yet to launch. After my return from Gyeongju, it remained the last must-see destination.

Arriving at the breath-taking museum before 11 am, I began a tiring but informative visit that took about six hours, excluding lunch and a tea break. What was even more encouraging was that as part of the celebration, admission is free until the end of this year, which is the 60th anniversary of the museum. There are three storeys in the museum, each divided into two main exhibition halls with distinctive themes. Exhibition halls on the ground floor specialise in Korean history from pre-historic to modern times. Those on the second and third floors are dedicated to all forms of art artefacts, collections from Korean and Japanese donors and an introduction to other Asian cultures.

What interested me most was the choice of Asian cultures presented on the third floor. Chinese and Japanese cultures apparently cannot afford to be neglected, but the others are Southeast and Central Asian cultures. Interestingly enough, India was not included in the list of Southeast Asian countries although it is common knowledge that India was the home of Buddhism, which also enjoys remarkable popularity in Korea. Really I could not help wondering if the museum has any problem liaising with their Indian counterparts on leasing or borrowing artefacts for display.

In terms of design and user-friendliness, the new museum probably provides visitors with one of the best experience around the world. The exhibition halls are spacious and pleasant to stroll along. Signs and directions are adequate and easy to read. Visitors are guided to walk through all the exhibition halls in one direction but they can easily drop out at certain points. There are also plenty of benches and lounges for a break. Food courts, washrooms and drinking water kiosks are ready to refresh the exhausted visitors. Three souvenir shops on the first and third floors also offer slightly different types of books and gifts that visitors find it difficult to hold back their wallets.

More importantly, information about the artefacts and exhibitions are eloquently explained in extraordinarily high quality of English and Chinese - and actually this has been one of the most impressive observations during my first visit to Korea.

As the "national central museum" of Korea, as its name in Korean actually depicts, it focuses on presenting visitors an informative overview of the history of Korea. While there are several extraordinary national treasures of more than 1,000 years but are extremely well preserved, the displayed collection of Silla seems a bit less attractive than that of Gyeongju. However, this is perfectly understandable because Gyeongju was the capital of Silla for a millennium.

It was already 5:30 pm when I left the museum. Then I took the subway to Dongdaemun (East Great Gate) market for a short visit. It looked very similar to the area around Tung Choi Street in Mong Kok, where food stalls and kiosks of hawkers scatter around. Prices of food and clothing seemed quite cheap at Dongdaemun, but it was so crowded that I decided to return to Jongro area where I can spend some time at the mega bookstores before dinner.

Again, I was lucky enough to have found a book about customs in Joseon palaces by Kim Yeong-suk, called A Study of Palace Customs of Joseon Dynasty. It was written in Korean but with a large number of references in Chinese characters. By that time I was trying to find the official Chinese name of "sura", which specifically means "the king's meal"; and "suragan", the royal kitchen that prepared the Joseon kings' dishes. Having seen the wood tablet at the National Palace Museum, I was really confused because the Chinese words on the tablet could never suggest a pronunciation similar to "sura". Flipping through books at different bookstores I have come across two versions of the Chinese characters. Unfortunately Kim Yeong-suk's book did not provide any Chinese translation but only Hangeul. Perhaps I should refer to the official records of Joseon kings when in Hong Kong.

Hwa-joo called me at about six o'clock today that we will meet at the southern bank of Han River tomorrow. I'd better start packing to make sure that the latest additions to my library can arrive safely at home.

To conclude the day and to celebrate the latest additions to my home library, I had another excellent meal of "galbitang" (beef ribs in soup) in a traditional Korean restaurant on Samilro near my hostel. Their "galbitang" and pickled side dishes are among the best I have ever had in Seoul.

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