A Bodhisattva statue at National Museum of Korea // © 2015 Shane Nelson
Feature image (above): Seoul museums offer lessons in South Korean history and culture. // © 2015 Thinkstock
Travelers heading to the booming Asian metropolis of Seoul, South Korea, will certainly want to set aside some time to explore the capital’s vibrant museums. An excellent way to gain insight into the destination’s rich culture, history and art, the following three institutions are loaded with informative and inspiring exhibitions.
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art
Largely composed of the private art collection belonging to the founder, along with the collection of a later board chairman, Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art showcases traditional works from the country’s rich past as well as contemporary art by Korean and well-known international masters.
Housed in a strikingly designed and distinctly modern exhibition space, the Leeum facility includes two experiences: Museum 1 for traditional art dating back centuries and Museum 2 for more current works and installations, including pieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.
A trip through the Leeum, which is a play on the founder’s last name (Lee) and the word "museum," provides a host of unexpected delights, ranging from 11th-century Korean celadons and porcelain objects to avant-garde installations, such as the 2014 work by Lee Bul titled “Bells from the Deep.” The installation uses two-way mirrors and LED lighting to lend the impression that viewers are standing in an infinite number of rooms.
National Museum of Korea
Travelers looking for an introduction to Korea’s exceptional history should plan at least a couple of hours at the sprawling National Museum of Korea, where visitors can journey back thousands of years to examine hand axes from the Paleolithic Age or stand in front of a shimmering, fifth-century, golden crown from the region’s Three Kingdoms period.
Prehistoric artifacts, ancient sculpture, vibrant paintings, ornate calligraphy and even contemporary photographs can all be enjoyed during a visit. Offering a range of highlights, the museum’s many large sculptures stand out, including a war horse in full battle regalia and a diverse collection of Buddhist statues. The National Museum’s gift shop is also a great place to pick up beautiful Korea souvenirs for family and friends back home.
The Seoul History Museum
A lively examination of Seoul’s diverse roots, stretching back to the 14th century and the destination’s establishment as the capital of the Joseon period, the Seoul History Museum might best be described as a chance to time travel through the city’s past to the present day.
Visitors get not only a comprehensive look at how life has changed in the capital over the centuries, but also a closer look at the people of Seoul, their traditions, their political history and even their food. Expect to see ancient artifacts, cultural objects and more modern exhibitions detailing the typical interior of a 1980s family apartment in the city, complete with a period television, kitchen appliances and board games.
Loaded with interactive exhibits, the museum offers many opportunities for viewers to get involved with the city’s history. One major highlight is the City Model display, which offers a now-and-then look back at the boundaries, buildings and infrastructure of Seoul throughout its history.