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Museum practice in South Korea

Museum practice in South Korea

For many tourists, visiting national museums and historical sites which contain objects and artworks definitive to the history of the country they’re exploring, are an important element of a successful trip. The accessibility of these sites and objects are often vital in shaping one’s view of the culture of a country, especially that of those where much has been lost in the face of technical advancement and global influence. For me, there is nothing better than visiting a museum in a new city and seeing a masterpiece central to its cultural heritage, yet this came into question when I visited South Korea.

​Within South Korean museums and historical sites, objects and buildings take on a new identity through the extensive use of replicas and reconstructions. Coming from an unassuming Western perspective, I have always unquestionably trusted museums in their curation of original objects, taking joy in experiencing something trapped within its time. So I was shocked when touring Gyeongbokgung Palace (the largest of the five palaces of the Josen dynasty in Seoul) that it was pretty much a complete reconstruction. Building after building was either burnt down during the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598 or demolished in the early twentieth century by the colonial government of Japan.

Other locations that would later become UNESCO world heritage sites were also destroyed by the Japanese, such at the Seokguram temple in Geonju, which was lazily restored with concrete that ruined much of its original structure.  Today, these important sites have been painstakingly restored, but little of the original exists, causing us to question what defines a historic site. Similarly, in museums, particularly the National Museum of South Korea, replicas are often used either as a substitute for an object or are placed next to the original in order to demonstrate its authentic appearance.



Arguably, this focus on reconstructions and replicas has much to do with tourism. Due to the great quantity of invasion and war that South Korea has experienced, little of the country’s original cultural heritage remains in-tact. Without such sites, the interesting and unique history of South Korea is likely to go unknown to many tourists, as well as potentially causing many culture-seekers not to visit. Therefore, it seems that the restoration projects carried out in South Korea on various historical sites is necessary in both maintaining the cultural heritage of the country and the increasing levels of tourists.

However, the use of replicas in museums is a little more questionable.  We visit museums often for the joy of witnessing an object or painting in its original state, as close to its context as possible, in some sort of historical pilgrimage. Although much of the National Museum of Korea contains original objects, it also often uses replicas which aren’t clearly marked. On first sight, it is frequently unclear what is real and what is fake, and I felt a little deceived when my tutor pointed out that various interesting objects were in fact replicas and thus began to question everything that I looked at. I understand that this is a practice very much embedded in Korea’s curatorial methods, an example of cross-cultural differences in curation, however it caused me to begin to distrust what I was seeing. Maybe if it was made more clear which objects were fake, my historical pilgrimage may have felt a little less tainted.

There were some positives to the museum’s use of replicas. There were some on display that invited the viewer to touch the object; a lifeline for the visually impaired by providing them with a new variant of access to the exhibits. This is also useful to other visitors of the museum, allowing everyone to experience the object beyond sight, through its shape, texture and material. The less valuable nature of the replicas mean that they can be handled and enjoyed without risking losing anything treasured in South Korea’s cultural heritage.

The authenticity of objects and buildings raises various questions on the role of the museum in their use of replicas. Firstly, why is it so acceptable in Korea to display replicas when it isn’t elsewhere? Maybe there is some sort of national pride in it, particularly for a country that has lost so much to war. Other countries with similar experiences may not share in these techniques of curation, but it could be more applicable to Korea who are beginning to establish themselves globally after their rapid industrialisation in the past twenty years.

Secondly, how accurate can replicas actually be? The untrained eye may see little difference, but the academic may be able to pick up variations in texture, material and appearance which in turn could affect the scholarship on the object. This then causes us to question the role of a museum and if one can exist filled purely with replicas.

Finally, how far do we go when it comes to protecting artefacts and buildings from the inevitabilities of change and time? What do we replicate and restore and what do we ignore? In South Korea’s case, this involved pinpointing key fragments of their history and what objects were defining in that. However, surely some objects and buildings have been ignored, thus causing them to be forgotten by the country’s heritage.

Different cultures will answer these questions differently. Curatorial techniques may not be as global as they seem, and historical and cultural context has often dictated what objects are accessible and how they should be displayed. For that reason, South Korea museums are not weird, even if initially it may seem so, but are actually the product of hundreds of years of change, tourist demands and inclusion.

Daniella Romano, Advantage Award Student

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