Korea's National Museum and Colonial Experience


On December 12, 1996, Korea's National Museum reopened in its new location in Seoul, while the building that had housed its treasures for the past ten years was being prepared for destruction. The grand project of relocating the National Museum of Korea to a new site and demolishing the old building -originally built as the Governor General's Office during Japanese colonial rule-has drown scholars and members of the general public into a heated about the National Museum and Korea's colonial experience.

The Symbol of Japanese Colonialism

In order to understand the diverse views presented in this debate, it is necessary to review the history of this controversial building. The construction of the Governor General's Office began of Korea by Japan in 1926, As headquarters of the Japanese colonial government in Korea, the building was the largest of its kind in east Asia, surpassing even the British in India and the Dutch in Indonesia. The Japanese apparently intended to demonstrate their political, economic, and military might to a newly - colonized Korea and the international community.

Known for its magnificent architecture representing the of 19th century public building, the Governor General's Office was initially designed by a German architect, George de Lalande. After Lalande's sudden death in August 1924, detailed blueprints were drafted by the Japanese architect Ichiro Nomura, the designer of the Japanese Governor General's Office in Taipei, Taiwan. The five-story building was constructed in the neo-Renanissance style on a lot of 97,00 square meters directly in front of the Kyongbok Place of the Choson Dynasty (1392 - 1910), dwarfing the main Throne Hall of Kunjongjon. In order to make a space for the new building, the Japanese destroyed no fewer than 48 structures of the place compound, including the place compound, including the original Kwanghwamun and Hungnyemun gates and the residence, and consorts. The construction of the Governor General's Office cost the Japanese 6.7 million yen, or about 60 billion won (U.S. $75 million) in 1995 currency. It had a total floor space of 31,300 square meters which was later expanded. For Koreans, it quickly become the most visible symbol of Japan's iron-first rule of Korea.

Among the reported reasons for building the Governor General's Office in front of the Kyongbok Place was a complicated geomantic theory. By interfering with the cosmically auspicious layout of the Royal Place-positioned between Puk'aksan and Namsan Mountains-the Japanese, many Koreans argue, believed that they could destroy Korea's national spirit. The building itself is a symmetrical structure with a central tower, symbolizing the power and authority of the Japanese emperor. The building was laid out in the shape of the Chinese character nichi, meaning sun, to represent Nippon, or Japan. The deformation/desecration of the Kyongbok Place was also part of a much lager scheme to destroy various palatial buildings of the Choson Dynasty, including Ch'angdok-gung, Kyonghee-gung, and Ch'anggyong-gung. The latter, which had been used as the queen's residence, was deliberately turned into a zoo a botanical garden in a heavy-handed attempt to insult Koreans.

The Building After Colonial Rule

For three years after Japan's unconditional surrender in august 1945, American Occupation Forces used the old colonial center as U.S, military government headquarters. The building later become the Korea's Constitutional Assembly on May 31, 1948. Since the founding of the Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948, government offices have occupied the building. The inauguration of the first President of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee, was held in front of the ex-Governor General's Office. During the Korean War, the Governor General's Office was briefly occupied by the army of North Korea, and the set fire when the United Nations forces recaptured Seoul in September, 1950. As a witness to the major political and social upheavals of modern Korean history, the building housed government offices including that of the Prime Minister, until 1983 when new quarters were constructed nearby. After an extensive renovation at a cost of some 20 million won (U.S. $25 million), the National Museum of Korea was moved into the building in August 1986.

During the very first administration of South Korea, the old Governor General's Office Become a subject of spirited debate: should the building be demolished or retained? The tremendous cost of destroying it, estimated at 9,35 billion won (U.S. $11.69 million in 1995), always silenced the proponents. That is, until the current decade.

Debate Over the Fate of the Governor General's Office

Cost, of course, was not the only factor; historical perspectives were also important. Supporters for dismantling the building argued that the remnants of Japanese colonial rule should be eliminated as soon as possible. Because the building was constructed order to eclipse the Royal Palace of the Choson Dynasty, it should not be left to stand on its current site. In addition, they contended the national treasures and Korea's most precious cultural remains could not be displayed and stoned in a building that initially built by the Japanese for the purpose of colonial rule.

Those who wanted to maintain the building argued that it was an important historical landmark of Korea's past, no matter how horrible that past might be. They also asserted that it could serve as a reminder that Koreans should guard against powerful neighbors. Some proposed a piece-by-piece transplant of the Governor General's Office to a site in the Independence Memorial in Chon'an in order to preserve the memory of Korea's colonial experience.

As the cost of dismantling the Governor General's Office become more palatable, the government's intention to go ahead with its demolition publicly surfaced in 1990 when then-President Roh Tai-woo expressed his support for removing the building and restoring the Kyongbok Palace. The demolition plan later received a significant boost from President Kim Young-sam as he made it an important item on his agenda in 1993. Considering Korea's extraordinary economic growth and improved international status, the government felt it was time to revive Korea's national pride. In late 1993, plans to demolish the Governor General's Office, relocate the National Museum collections to a new building in the Yongsan Family Park, and reconstruct the Kyongbok Place were finalized.

The first step was taken on March 1, 1995, the 75th anniversary of Korea's declaration of independence from Japanese colonial rule. As thousands of guests looked on, a special ceremony was held in front of the old colonial edifice to announce its destruction. On August 15, 1995, the 50th anniversary of Korea's emancipation from Japanese colonial rule, the actual demolition began with the symbolic removal of the building's dome.

Relocating Korea's National Treasures

Given that the new National Museum building in Yongsan Family Park would no be ready until the first decade of the next century, it was necessary to find a temporary home for the huge collections that were soon to be homeless. It was decided that the Choson Dynasty History Museum, which itself was still under construction, would serve as a temporary shelter for the collections.

In this long saga of the Governor General's office and the National Museum of Korea, several important issues regarding the meaning and role of the National Museum and Korean's colonial experience have been raised by archaeologists, museum curators and administrators, cultural policy makers, architects, and historians. It is possible to summarize some of the most significant problems as follows.

First, it seems that politics played the most important role in the decision-making process. It was a decision by President Kim Young-sam on August 8, 1993 that effectively halted the debate over the fate of the Governor General's Office. According to poll taken on June 3, 1991, 77% of the professors, curators, and related specialists and 65% of the general public were for the demolition of the building. A puble hearing hosted by the Ministery of Culture and Sport and another by the National Assembly, in 1993, showed similar results. However, opinions differed regarding the exact time and procedure of demolition and the future site of the National Museum. In order to promote it as a personal achievement during his term, President Kim required that the demolition of the Governer General's building be completed by the end of 1996.

As a result, the demolition and relocation of collections had to be carried out according to a hasty schedule. As an emergency measure, an accessory building of the Nation Museum - used for public education - was selected to serve as a temporary shelter for at least seven years. Extensive renovation of his building at a cost of 33 billion won (U.S. $41.25 million), started in July 1994, and finished in the summer of 1996. This building will be designated as the Choson Dynasty History Museum after the National Museum collections move to their new home in Yongsan Family Park by 2003.

Because the extremely valuable national collections had to move twice in a decade, some of those who were for the destruction of the Governor General's Office opposed the speedy relocation schedule. Given that the building had been used since 1945, some people asked why it could not continue to exist until a new museum could be constructed.

An international competition for the design of the National Museum was authorized by the Union of International Architects and held in 1995. The selection committee, consisting of four foreigners and three Koreans, chose a Western-style building by a Korean architect. The actual construction for the new museum will begin in 1997.

Restoring Korea's National History

An issue related to this controversial project that has not been sufficiently discussed in the issue of historical preservation. The demolition of the colonial building has become intertwined with the much larger project of restoring Kyongbok Palace, the royal residence and administrative center for the Choson Dynasty. Plans call for the reconstruction of 48 structures that were eradicated by the Japanese when they built the Governor General's Office. This massive restoration project is scheduled to be competed in 2009 and will cost a total of 178.9 billion won (U.S. $223.6 million). Although most Koreans spirit shaken by the better colonial experience," few understand why it is necessary to reconstruct all of these imperial structures. Some have argued that there are other ways to retrieve Korean national pride.

Representing Korean Culture Today

The final issue to be considered is the display of art and artifacts in the National Museum. In recent years, museum exhibits in Europe and North America have been the subject of considerable debate. How can museums accommodate the growing interest in cultural representation? Is the museum a temple or is it a forum, a place for confrontation, experimentation, and debate? In Korea there has been little discussion regarding the content of new exhibitions at the National Museum. Most of the changes envisioned for the new museum building are related to the presentation of recent archaeological discoveries, and the physical improvement of public amenities. Furthermore, the National Museum has sponsored few exhibitions relating to Korea's modern history, including the period of Japanese colonial rule.

The destruction of the Governor General's Office, the reconstruction of 48 palatial building in the heart of Seoul, and the neglect of modern history in museum exhibits suggest that the cultural contradictions of colonialism are unresolved in modern Korea. The physical destruction of a building, no matter how large and important, is relatively simple compared to the monumental task of creating an historical narrative that makes sense of a nation's past.

Yangjin Pak is an assistant professor in the Department of Archaeology at Chungnam National University in Taejon, Korea. He received his Ph.D. form Harvard University in 1995 with a dissertation entitled "A Study of the Bronze Age Culture in the Northern Zone of China." He has contributed articles to several books and journals.

For Further Reading * Lee, Ki-baik. 1984. A New History of Korea. translated by E.W. Wagner with E.J. Shultz. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. * Eckert, Carter J. 1990 Korea, Old and New: A History. Seoul: Ilchokak Publishers. * Nahm, Andrew C, ed. 1973. Korea Under Japanese Colonial Rule: Studies of the Policy and Techniques of Japanese Colonialism. Center for Korean Studies, Institute of International and Area Studies. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University. * Ramon H. Myers and Mark R. Peattie, eds. 1984. The Japanese Colonial Empire 1895 - 1945. Princeton: Princeton University Press. * Robinson, Michael, E. 1988. Cultural Nationalism in Colonial Korea, 0920 - 1925. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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