How can you truly appreciate a city without knowing its origins?
We were curious to know more about Seoul. Our previous visits to other places before this helped provide a different glimpses of the history of the city, but we were hoping to learn even more about it. Where else would be the right place to connect the dots if not for Seoul Museum of History?
Despite the heavy rain that day, we were adamant on making the trip and took a bus to get there.
Got our free passes at the reception counter and grabbed the map of the museum and the audio guide. The museum was close to empty, we totally didn’t mind.
The museum was divided into different sections and like the layout of the IKEA store, we had to go through on section before passing to the next. For every exhibit, we were guided by either written explanation and if they were not available, we referred to the audio guide. So here’a a recap of my visit
Part I: The Joseon Capital
This section captures Seoul in the 1300s to the 1800s. It tells the story of how Hanyang (now Seoul) was discovered and made into the capital of Joseon (now South Korea). Surrounded by mountains at all four corners with the river Cheonggyecheon flowing in the middle of it, the location was thought to be so ong. King Taejo loved it so much that he decided that that’s where the royal palace would be built and that’s where the country’s capital should reside.
The grand palace Gyeongbokgung was built and became the center of administration until Japanese invaded Korea and destroyed it, leading to the building of palaces Changdeokgung and Gyeonghuigung to replace it. (The palaces have been restored today, we also visited Gyeongbokgung).
Here, too, was where we learned about the life in old Seoul — the way the government was run and the communities living in the city (explaining the origins of elites of Bukchon).
Part II: The Capital of Korean Empire
This section captures Seoul in mid-1800s to the early 1900s. It’s when the city begins opening itself and aspires to become a powerful empire. King Gojong changes the name of the country from Joseon to the Korean Empire. Foreigners began stepping foot into the city and establishing their legations there. This was also the time when the people were exposed to other civilizations and began embracing it. Business was booming, with Jongno, the famous street that was basically located in front of our accommodation earlier, became the it place for traders.
The Korean Empire was set on the grand plan of modernizing itself. Everything was looking good so far, but so much for their aspirations… because the Japanese came knocking shortly.
Part III: Seoul under Japanese Control
This section captures Seoul from the early to mid 1900s. It’s when the Japanese came to invade the city (again), this time, on a far more serious scale than before. The Japanese was in a war with was it China and thought that Seoul was the perfect ground to set up before going further into the land to attack China. The Japanese came in, put the empire to its ground and took control of everything — administrative, military, legislative, judiciary, etc. matters. The demolished what they didn’t like and built what they thought was right (there was even a Mitsukoshi :lol:).
The Japanese brought in modernity that was never seen in Seoul. It awed the people of Seoul and they were yearning for it. Most of the developments were however it was limited to the area where the Japanese stayed, the south side of Cheonggyecheon. As a result, there was a great divide between quality of life of people in Seoul — the south side of the river was the bright and shiny uptown, while the north of river was the bleak ghetto (that’s where most of the Koreans were located).
The resources of the country — money and labor — were taken by the Japanese to fund their war, hence the Koreans were living in poverty most of the time. If you went through every exhibit, you kind get why they hate the Japanese so much 😐 It was a super dark time for Koreans.
Part IV: Period of Rapid Growth for Seoul
Like us, Seoul was free from the grip of the Japanese Imperial Army in 1945. However, things still didn’t look great. The war ended, more people came back to the country. Those from the rural areas (including as far as North Korea) started to move into the city that it became a ridiculously crowded place. There were settlements everywhere, polluting the Cheonggyecheon. Life was not good.
Not long after, in 1950 the Korean war i.e. North Korea vs South Korea broke, which made things even worse. Reza and I wanted to know what led to the north and south breakup and how it happened, but there was no information on it, which is outrageous!
Next thing we know, Seoul began booming. We were confused a bit.
Anyway. Seoul’s real modernization began in the 1970s to the 1990s. Construction of commercial and housing, roads, transportation, etc. The rate of development was so bizarre and once again everything was looking good, until buildings started collapsing (among them, Sampoong Department Store). It served as a wakeup call for the people to slow down and reflect.
At this section, they set up a couple of real life exhibits of:
- A clothing manufacturing factory looks, to let us imagine how the kind of crap lives they lived in to survive i.e. cramped spaces for multiple of people where the work and slept;
- A small popular restaurant frequented by the locals; and
- A typical apartment in Seoul in the 1980s, which didn’t look far off to ours at the time!
Part V: Seoul, Now and in the Making
This section is the city model image hall. Basically it’s a lit-up model of Seoul highlighting various areas of the city at the time. We tried to find places that we’ve visited throughout our stay at the time. The city’s not that big, so you’ll find plenty of spots to recognize 😆
After spending about 3 hours in the museum, we’ve come to understand Seoul and the hardship its people have gone through to come this far. Such a world-class museum, no wonder it’s rated highly on TripAdvisor!
We’re not done yet though. Still curious about the Korean War… but managed to understand why in our next visit 😉
The museum entrance is free! Learn more about Seoul Museum of History here.