Thursday, October 27, 2016

Seoul again – museums

My very last day in Seoul I had one free full morning before I had to leave for the airport. Despite having gone out the night before, I made an effort, got up really early, and headed to the Yongshan Family Park (용산가족공원) to visit, first and foremost, the National Hangeul Museum (국립한글박물관) and, if time allowed, the National Museum of Korea (국립중앙박물관).

As it happens, I planned to be there right at opening time, but got there earlier! So, I had a walk around the grounds, enjoying the views of the modern museum and the lake and pagoda across, as well as the small woods in the area, where I came across a peaceful clearing with  a beautiful carp pond. Nice pre-museum time!

I finally walked to the National Hangeul Museum, which is a museum on the Korean script, called hangeul. Of course, being such a fan of languages and linguistics, I had to see this, right? You see, the Koreans, like the Japanese and other Asian peoples, used the complex Chinese script for quite some time (in the case of Japan, even until today, in a reduced way). The problem being that a) it is indeed a daunting script that requires years of education to learn and master, and b) the morphology and grammar of Chinese often diverged completely from that of the languages adopting the script, which made for a very forced marriage. 

In 1443 King Sejong the Great, from the Joseon Dynasty, created hangeul, an alphabetic script (one letter, one sound), following the reasoning that writing using Chinese characters was exceedingly difficult without privileged access to education. And so he in a way democratized literacy through hangeul. It took centuries before hangeul was uniformly used. By the beginning of the 20th century its use was very similar to Japan's today, with roots of words written in Chinese and the grammatical endings and particles in hangeul. The final and current modern orthography was published in 1946. 

A very long way, but an impressive one, also making it almost impossible for me to decipher things, since I can't use Chinese characters – like I do in Japanese – to decode packaging and signs! 

There were plenty of fascinating items, including a book from 1568 commemorating the history of Sakyamuni, as well as ancient manuals for learning Japanese and Mongolian through hangeul. This was awesome! As well, there was another exhibition, on the use of hangeul in advertising in contemporary South Korea. This was fascinating too, as it went to the other extreme – a full fledged use of the alphabet, with typographic and colour play. Well done, Korea, well done.

I still had some time, so I headed to the National Museum. But, before I entered, I noticed a stage was being set for some festival. Now, this wouldn't be special, except for the fact that there seemed to be some ceremony going on, with singing, dancing, some ritual-like motions about planting seeds, and some agricultural scenes as background. Maybe for good luck? Anyhow, this was interesting to look at, whatever it may have been.

With limited time, I chose the special exhibition at the National Museum: The city in art, art in the city. What about? Well, of course, art about Seoul and Seoul's art! The first part was a number of beautiful centuries-old artistic maps of Seoul, followed by scrolls depicting life in important Chinese and Japanese cities, as the Koreans would send diplomats and establish missions in those places, partly in order to learn from those civilizations. No photos were allowed of that first section, but the scrolls and paintings were beyond beautiful. Really exquisite works of art bringing you back to ancient Kyoto, Beijing, Tokyo...

The second part was a collection of objects from different times of Seoul's history, many of them reflecting a period where the middle class became obsessed with amassing refined and delicateobjects as an intellectual and social endeavour. I really enjoyed this, and I was even overwhelmed by a nostalgia for living in Asia again... It's so strange how familiar many of these things felt, and how they made me long for life in this part of the world...

After this, I ran back to the Hangeul Museum, I was dying for one last cup of good coffee! That's the iced espresso and macaroon photo in my previous post. And when I emerged from the museum, oh so content after my coffee and macaroon, the weather was so gorgeous, sunny yet cool, and at a nearby small hill kids were hanging some cards on trees with blossoms. The flowers were so delicate, the skies so blue, the sun so comforting, the atmosphere so alive...

This was the perfect farewell. And then I rushed back to the hotel, to head for the airport.

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