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
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.|
|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!|
|Carved wooden figures from the U.S.|
|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