I am a total museum geek. Give me a building full of ancient artifacts and I will be happy for hours. If the collection is well-curated with detailed English descriptions, I could be there all day. Which is what happened when we visited the excellent National Museum of Korea in Seoul.
We started on the third floor, in the India and Southeast Asia section, and were surprised that the pieces we saw looked more Greek than Asian. This was our first introduction to Gandharan art from Central Asia, a region which once linked India and China via the Silk Road. Because of the blending of cultures along this ancient trading route, Buddhist sculpture began to take on Hellenistic and Indian characteristics around the 2nd century AD. I was reminded of Alexander the Great and the influence of ancient Greek civilization and suddenly wanted to reread the Odyssey. Like I said, I’m a geek.
The third floor of the museum also showcases a few choice pieces from the Astana Graves, a cemetery found near a city called Turpan, in Xinjiang, China. Over 1,000 tombs, used between the 4th and 8th centuries, have been discovered and the contents well preserved thanks to the dry climate. The wall hangings are in notably good condition.
There is a decent display of Japanese art, the most impressive of which being a series of woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige. The 19th century works, titled ‘Stories of the 53 Stations of Tokaido,’ depict scenes of travelers at rest stations along the East Sea Road which served as the main link between Tokyo and Kyoto.
It wouldn’t be the National Museum of Korea without loads of Korean treasures, and we were duly impressed. Buddhism came to Korea in the Three Kingdoms period and by the 8th century AD, a distinctive sculptural style had developed, as can be seen in the museum’s array of Korean Buddha images. A special alcove holds the Pensive Bodhisattva, a gilt-bronze statue held in high regard for its exquisite physical proportions and thoughtful expression. Other pieces include ornately carved bronze implements, beautiful celadon and white porcelain, and unique Buncheong ware, in which celadon is covered with white mud.
The collection’s highlight, at least for me, is a gold crown and girdle dating to the 5th century. Likely belonging to a queen, the crown alone is made from over 1,000 grams of gold and jade! These priceless antiques are kept in a ground floor alcove, surrounded by lots more bling including gold caps, crown ornaments, necklaces and massive earrings that likely skimmed the shoulders of the wearer. There are many more interesting artifacts throughout the Prehistory and Ancient History exhibit, but I was too distracted by all the shiny things to take note.