In Praise of the Chicken: The Seoul Museum of Chicken Art

Now the the Season of the Torrential Downpour seems to be behind us (although we are still, unfortunately, entertaining its close relative, the Season of Unbelievable Heat and Humidity), a group of us expatriate wives have begun venturing out to various points of interest in Seoul, expanding our knowledge of the history, art, and culture of this ancient Asian city, and educating ourselves about its many unique aspects.  On Thursday, we took ourselves to Bukchon, a neighborhood that is known for its charming traditional architecture, handcrafts, and art galleries.  Naturally, we ended up at The Seoul Museum of Chicken Art.

If you have not heard of this museum, it is nothing to be ashamed of - apparently, many Seoulites are not aware of its existence, either.   While I will grant you that it is not a museum on the same scale as, say, The Louvre, it is clearly an establishment worth visiting, especially since the entrance fee is only 3,000 Won, and - this was particularly important to myself and the other mid-40s women visitors I was with - it was somewhat air-conditioned.   Given the brutal heat and humidity here right now, AC was a definite plus even for those members of our party who may have been not quite as keen on the idea of visiting a chicken art museum as I was but were far too well-bred to indicate it.  Because, I'll admit it:  the chicken museum has been something of an obsession of mine ever since I learned about its existence.  So, even as we wandered past the charming traditional embroidery workshops and snapped photo after photo of picturesque hanoks, I was scanning the horizon for this:

For those of you who are wondering 'Why a Museum of Chicken Art?' My answer is simple:   I like the unusual, the obscure, and the offbeat, and I'm not afraid to seek it out.  I submit as evidence the fact that, when planning a family vacation to Santa Fe and Taos last year, I deliberately added two days to our itinerary in order to stop in Roswell during the annual Official UFO festival, and included a visit to the Roswell International UFO and Research Center.   At the center there were, of course, a number of other tourists like us, but, since we were there during the actual Festival - which attracts serious extraterrestrial-ationists(ites?ians?) from around the world - there was also a significant number of certifiable loons  distinguished  alien enthusiasts who had gathered at the center to earnestly discuss  a number of Area 51-related conspiracy theories as well as sketchily  exhaustively researched alien-based explanations for global warming, 9/11, and Justin Bieber.  Needless to say, they did not have much of a sense of humor, alienwise, and did not appreciate me and Mr. Logical snickering at the fact that the alien on the table in the re-creation of the alien autopsy scenario was not wearing any underwear.  Let me assure you, however, that, most of the time, we were very respectful of the Alien Believer subculture, and also had a fabulous time taking photos of  - among other things - the street lamps (shaped like little UFOs) and the Roswell Credit Union sign which has an actual spacecraft on it.  You really can't make this stuff up.

So, as you can see, the Museum of Chicken Art and I were destined for one another:  obscure? Check.  Relatively unknown to the average tourist? Check.  Likely to cause eye-rolling in the serious traveler? Check.  It was a shoo-in for the MsCaroline bucket list, and, fortunately, everyone in our group was - if not exactly passionate about poultry-related art- at least morbidly curious about just what exactly you would find in a chicken art museum.  Accordingly, we all paid our KW3,000 (US$3.00) and trooped into the gallery, which  -besides the  reception area - is comprised of only the upstairs room and the downstairs room, which, in museum terms, is pretty small.  However, I feel that this museum's somewhat limited space provided the kind of coziness that I think we can all agree is sadly lacking in The Art Institute of Chicago.   Both rooms were of medium size, and  both of them filled with every imaginable type of chickenalia from Korea and the rest of the world:  sculpture, woodcarving, embroidery, painting, ceramics, and even a wrought-iron rooster light fixture from Provence.  After we'd paid our Won and were ready to head in, the museum owner produced an 'English-speaking tour guide,' who - like many such tour guides in Seoul - spoke English, but not the kind we could easily understand.

Our sincere, kindly, well-meaning, but difficult to understand tour guide.

  However, he was so sincere, well-meaning, and enthusiastic about introducing us to the subtleties of Korean Chicken Art that we politely followed him around and listened to what he had to say anyway.  Since most of the Chicken Art has English explanations posted next to it, his guidance was not strictly a necessity, but it was clear that he felt it was his duty to make sure we got our 3,000 KW worth, no matter what.  We eventually developed a system where we would gather around him, listen to his earnest explanation, and then one of us would surreptitiously linger behind the group to read the English explanation while the rest of us moved on.  In this way, we managed to piece together a basic - if incomplete - understanding of The Rooster in Traditional Korean Art Through The Ages.  We started in the upstairs gallery, where it immediately became clear that the museum, although billed as a chicken museum, was, in fact, more about the rooster, who was getting top billing in most of the art.   This rooster-centric focus resulted in MrLogical's suggestion for a significantly more risque' title for this post, but since I am determined to retain my blog's PG-13 rating, it - sadly - cannot be used.   In any case, it turns out that the rooster symbolizes a number of virtues in traditional Korean culture, including intelligence, courage, steadfastness, 'heartedness'(what I personally interpreted to mean 'responsibility'), and reliability('trust').

What I found most interesting in all of this was that the traditional hats worn by Korean government officials were supposed to resemble a rooster's crest, which symbolized intelligence.  That's :right:  rooster = intelligence.  Having grown up in a culture where the most common artistic representation of a rooster is Foghorn Legorn,  I was understandably skeptical.

Korean official wearing rooster hat

Close-up of Korean official headgear.  Note roosters.

The other new - and actually quite interesting -  piece of information I learned while at the museum was that the rooster was believed to be an important funeral symbol in Korean culture, and that the rooster would serve as a guide, or companion for the soul of the deceased as (s)he traveled to heaven, due to it being the only animal in the Asian zodiac with wings.  For this reason, one could often find representations of roosters painted or carved onto funeral biers.  One of the more inquiring members of our party pointed out that, since the rooster was more or less a flightless bird this would seem to make them a fairly inefficient method of conveyance to the spirit world,  but, fortunately, our guide did not hear this and we thereby avoided the complete deconstruction of 3 thousand years of Korean funerary belief traditions.

Miniature replica of traditional funeral bier, with rooster details (dangling in front and on roof).  The rooster was supposed to accompany the departing soul to heaven.

From what I could gather from our guide, the rooster also showed up in the form of a ghost, or a frightening-looking spirit which could scare demons away, as in this depiction:

menacing rooster spirits

I'm not sure if the roosters are more like sidekicks, or if they simply symbolize that the demon is highly intelligent, but this was one of my favorite images, and I would have bought one of my own if they'd had them for sale.

The upstairs room also contained some beautiful handcarved wedding chests that Korean brides used to carry their belongings to their new homes when they married, which featured roosters as a symbol of the ideal bridegroom, who was supposed to embody all the noble qualities of the rooster, as mentioned above.  There were also some lovely pieces of embroidery as well as prints and paintings, and another funeral bier, this one made of mostly construction paper by students at a local elementary school as part of their study of traditional Korean customs:

There were quite a few roosters scattered throughout the project, but my favorite was this face.  I'm not clear on what emotion it is supposed to be displaying (grief, maybe?) but I loved it:

Love this face!
Leaving the upstairs room, we trooped down the narrow flight of stairs to the downstairs room, which was almost literally crammed with display cabinets, shelves, tables, and ledges, all of them exhibiting every possible representation of chickens and roosters in every possible medium from countries across the globe:

Carved wooden figures from the U.S.
It was the kind of room that you would not want to bring a toddler into, so if you are reading this and considering taking your toddler here, be warned.  I no longer have any toddlers, but just walking into this room made me instantly imagine the havoc one energetic 2-year-old could wreak.

This cabinet displayed glass and crystal figurines from places like Poland and the Ukraine.

These are Native American representations of chickens and roosters.

As far as 'fine art' goes, I don't suppose this museum would get many stars, but my companions and I found it to be a wonderfully quirky little place and learned a few facts about the chicken in Korean traditional art that we would otherwise have never known.  And - as I mentioned earlier - it was air conditioned.

The Seoul Museum of Chicken Art is located in the Bukchon section of Seoul.  Take line 3 to Anguk Station, going out exit #2.  Go straight ahead up the street (north).  The museum is a 10- minute walk away on the right hand side.  

Entrance Fee:  KW3,000


Karen said…
Coming from a state where the state bird is a chicken, I found this to be quite interesting. I actually enjoyed looking at the different chickens and hearing you tell some to the chicken lore. art done by chickens? That's what I wanted to see!
cheryl barnes said…
Clever girl! I look forward to news about your adventures every day. In honor of your trip to the Museum Chicken Art, I ceremoniously changed my cheap felt lined kitchen table cloth (vinyl) from a cheerful blue sunflower pattern to a very intelligent and responsible Kountry K*ck design. Also, as if to totally empaththize with the changing from the Season of the Torrential Rains to the Season of Heat and Humidity, the house has decided to put both air conditioning units on the fritz at the same time. You may think, well it is almost fall, what's the big deal? Mother Nature has conspired with the house to give us the hottest day of the year yesterday. Sweatingly Yours, Cheryl
Barbara said…
I love it! I, too, would have had to go see this museum. Your picture of the native american chicken art includes a white with red spots chicken that looks almost exactly like the Navajo chicken I bought in Phoenix a few weeks ago! Plus, Roswell is on my bucket list.
MsCaroline said…
@Karen: I had no idea that the chicken was the state bird of RI. Learn something new every day. As far as the chicken art is concerned, I am guessing that, since 'artistic' was not one of the 5 noble qualities listed on the attributes list, chicken art is as, of yet, undiscovered in Korea. Maybe I should mention it the next time I go.
MsCaroline said…
@Cheryl: Hahaha...I believe I have that very same tablecloth, although it is in storage since we didn't bring our kitchen table with us. I had a similar one with vampires and frankensteins on it that I switched to for Hallowe'en. No surprise that you clearly deduced the direction MrLogical was moving with the title of my piece. So sorry about the AC: are they still the units we put in, or have they been replaced? The units on the house in TX were starting to emit the death rattle before we left(only 10 years old), and every day I open up my email expecting a notice from the rental property managers telling us that they have both died and will need to be replaced. Hopefully your air issues will soon be fixed either by a certified HVAC technician or Mother Nature.
MsCaroline said…
@Barbara: From what I know of you from reading your blog, I am not surprised at all that you would have wanted to see this museum, or that Roswell is on your bucket list. (If you go, highly recommend you try to do it during the UFO festival: the whole town is alive with not only the most interesting people you will ever see, but every establishment really knocks itself out to out-alien its neighbor. It is worth noting that we were not the only family who had made themselves tinfoil hats to protect ourselves from the space rays...quite an adventure.)
Karen said…
Yes, the Rhode Island Red is a very distinct breed of chicken. Lays brown eggs and as a kid I never really realized that white eggs were "normal." Just thought Mom got them special for Easter, since you really can't color brown eggs. To this day I only buy white eggs to color at Easter. Otherwise, all the eggs here are brown. 2 more days 'til school..."It's the most wonderful time of the year!!!" And a long time coming!
MsCaroline said…
Duh...Rhode Island could I forget? We get occasional brown eggs, but they are definitely more of the exception than the rule....hard to believe your kids aren't back yet - we started back on Aug 17th...seems like ages ago!
Anonymous said…
I lived in Seoul from 2002-04, and reading your blog has brought back a lot of memories! Have you made it to the kimchi museum at Coex Mall yet? Maybe not so unusual compared to the chicken art museum, but weird non the less :) I wasn't a big fan of Korean food in general, but I really miss cucumber kimchi!
MsCaroline said…
@Outbound: Haven't been to the kimchi museum yet, but thanks for the suggestion - will add it to the list! Visited your blog and it looks like you are up to your ears getting ready for your move. Had to agree with your comments about some of the costs that are paid for expats - our son's high school tuition at an international school here in Seoul, including extra fees and bus charges, is close to $30K per year. I have no idea how people whose companies don't pay tuition can afford it!
Wilma said…
Carolyne, of course the alien being autopsied wasn't wearing underwear--he was DEAD and they were dissecting him. *grin* As far as the chickens/roosters not flying, according to my father they can get some pretty good flight if need be. As a kid he had to roust them out of the trees on many occasions when there were "intruders" in the night. He was the baby so he was stuck with the chicken chores. That must have been standard back in the 1920s because my MIL was too--difference being she wound up liking roosters and my father wound up not liking anything to do with chickens at all. LOL

With regard to the previous post about the kimchi museum--don't forget to take your noseplug when you visit that one. It might smell. LOL
MsCaroline said…
@Wilma: Of course you're right, but I believe I have mentioned that MrL and I are quite juvenile. Truth be told, we were probably laughing harder at the dreadful 1950s/1960s mannequins who were supposed to represent the government guys in the scenario. I suspect that we would have offended the visiting experts no matter what we were laughing at anyway. As far as roosters and flying go, yes, they certainly do fly, but I guess when I think about a spirit going up to the afterlife, it's not a flap across the yard/field/chicken coop, it's a fairly sustained flight. Maybe I'm just a product of my WASPy upbringing, but I always envision a fairly long-distance bird as a soul's accompaniment to the afterlife, you know, something along the lines of a Canadian goose or the Arctic Tern. However, I'm not ruling out the rooster. It's just my preconceived notions that get in the way.
Wilma said…
Eagles, Carolyne, eagles! Haven't you heard the song, "On Eagles' Wings"? It's been a Catholic funeral standard for quite awhile now. I think it's also becoming popular in Protestant churches as well.
Potty Mummy said…
Excellent post; hilarious and informative. There must be an expat publication (equivalent to a 'Moscow Times' here) that you can submit this to, surely? Although of course, then you would have chicken artists from across the globe knocking on your virtual door hoping for advice... And about the roosters not flying, surely you've seen the excellent 'documentary' (as in 'the Roswell incident really happened), called 'Chicken Run'? Mel Gibson never sounded so good...
MsCaroline said…
@Wilma: Of course, I should have been thinking of eagles... In fact, that was the scripture that was used at my father's service: "But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."
I really don't know why the Arctic Tern came to mind, but I suspect my dad would have appreciated it either way. ; )
MsCaroline said…
@PM: Oh, I am so sorry to say that I HAVE seen 'Chicken Run' - more than once, since Son #2 liked it so much. I should have remembered it and used it as one of my sources. As far as publishing, there are plenty of English-speaking publications here, but I doubt they would appreciate my lack of respect for the gravitas of chicken art...pity.
Trish said…
Your visit to an obscure museum reminds me of our visit to the Penis museum in Iceland. My husband and I giggled a lot too. So really, you and I have both been to cock museums!

Such an entertaining post - and loving the two ladies in the photo (is one of them you?), one trying hard to look earnest (the one on the right) and the other glazing over.
MsCaroline said…
Ha, Trish, that was very close to MrL's suggestion for the title of the post, among other, bawdier ones! You accurately assessed the glazed over look, although that's not me, it's another lady in our party. I was hidden behind the camera and therefore had something to hide my glazing behind...

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