Sights in Seoul: Korean Liberation Day at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts

(Note:  most of these photos were taken with MsCaroline's phone;  they are included merely to provide a general idea of her experience, and she is sure all of her readers could take better ones.  For those of you who are looking for something interesting to do in Seoul in your free time, MsC highly recommends the King Sejong/Admiral Yi exhibits:  they are school-age kid-friendly (hands-on, interesting exhibits, great for military/history buffs) educational, FREE, underground (eg, ideal for poor weather,)  provide some great insight and information into Korea's history and are easily reached via line 5 on the subway system.  More details at the end of the post.)

For those of you not in the know, last Thursday (August 15) was Korean Liberation Day, a major public holiday here in Korea.  MrL and MsCaroline had the day off, although Son#2 did not and was therefore compelled to wake up early and attend his first day of Grade 11.  (Although this was the Asia Vus' 3rd Liberation Day in Korea, MsCaroline cannot for the life of her remember what (if anything) she did to mark the occasion on the last two.  Given the skyrocketing heat and humidity here on the peninsula in August, it is most likely that she huddled miserably indoors, but she really cannot remember that far back.)

MsCaroline's 3rd summer in Seoul has made her much more intrepid - as well as resourceful - and, as such, she, MrL and their long-suffering friend and 3rd Musketeer, LC, decided to spend their holiday in a place with air conditioning experiencing some of the cultural offerings of Seoul.  After a bit of research, they decided to head to the Robert Capa Photo Exhibition at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, where MsCaroline would also finally get around to seeing two of the most well-known (and ubiquitous) exhibits in Seoul: The Stories of King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sunsin (pronounced 'soon-shin'.) (MrL and LC had already seen it, years before.)
Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square.

MsCaroline refers to them as 'ubiquitous' because the giant monument to King Sejong (which marks the underground entrance to the museum) is one of the first things most visitors see when they drive through Seoul, and visiting the museums below is something that, apparently, everyone does practically the moment they arrive (except, of course, good ol' MsC, who waited for 2 years.)

Centrally-located in Gwanghwamun Square is an enormous statue of the beloved monarch, who ruled (1418-1450) during the Joseon Dynasty, and is best known for his creation of Korea's written alphabet, hangul.  Hangul is unique among Asian writing in that it is a phonics-based alphabet, with letters that represent each of the sounds of the Korean language, which are put together to create words, just as they are in many Latin-based languages.  (Memorizing the 24 letters of the Hangul alphabet is a simple process - once it's learned, you can start reading almost immediately, which probably explains Korea's 98% literacy rate - no 'silent letters' or 'i before e' rules - what you see is what you get.  Genius.)  This is in direct contrast to the character-based alphabets of Japanese and Chinese, which require readers to memorize hundreds or thousands of characters.

MsCaroline can read Hangul, which means she can sound out virtually any word that she sees in the Korean language.  Sadly, this does not mean that she understands much more of it than she did on her arrival, but occasionally, she can puzzle out a word or phrase that is helpful to her if it is:  a) a Korean word she knows, such as a street or business name or b) an English word that has been 'Koreanized' (coffee, smart phone, ice cream.) MsCaroline imagines that, if she were living in China or Japan, she would probably not be able to read anything at all, so she is a huge fan of Hangul and thinks it is brilliant.

The entrance to the King Sejong exhibit is in Gwanghwamun Square, directly beneath the statue and easy to find.  What MsC and her posse did not realize, however, was that a number of planned activities take place in Gwanghwamun Square on Korean Liberation Day, which meant that it was even more packed than usual.  Directly adjacent to the square is a large parklike lawn, which, in honor of the holiday, was featuring a display of creatively cut topiaries, all made from the Korean National Flower - the Rose of Sharon - which, of course, MsCaroline did not get any good closeups of, but which really were lovely:

Rose of Sharon Topiaries line both sides of the green.  Hard to believe this is taken in downtown Seoul.

More topiaries in the square.
Naturally, there were no less than a million people milling around the square and photographing:  a) the topiaries;  b)each other; and c) each other standing in front of the topiaries, but MsC has come to expect this after 2 years and was not at all intimidated.  She got in, got her shots, and proceeded thankfully down the stairs into the cooler depths below where they proposed to check out the two permanent, free exhibits before proceeding on to the Robert Capa exhibit.

Heading downstairs to the exhibit
The stairs actually led down to a large central area where visitors could choose which exhibit to visit first:  King Sejong, or Admiral Yi.  MsCaroline opted for King Sejong first, and found the exhibit to be well-laid out, modern, and spacious, with plenty of models, a film, and very thorough and interesting English commentary throughout (a nice treat, since not all Korean museums provide this.)  In honor of the holiday, there were a number of hands-on exhibits for children set up throughout the exhibit, as well as a permanent photo opportunity in the form of a traditional Korean bench and scenery:

The looks on these kids' faces are universal, aren't they?

As well as a number of other alphabet-inspired items:
These benches are hangul letters
What MsCaroline found most interesting about King Sejong was that he was actually quite the Renaissance Man:  not only did he create the hangul alphabet, but he was also responsible for quite a few inventions in diverse areas ranging from agriculture to muscal instruments to weapons. In many ways, he reminded her of the American revolutionary figure and indefatigable inventor Benjamin Franklin..  

Korean percussion instruments invented by King Sejong.
Weapon invented by King Sejong - no idea what it's called, but it's cool.

After 2 years of living in Korea, MsCaroline was well aware that King Sejong is still held in high esteem by most Koreans.  After seeing this exhibit, she completely understands why.  She is hoping someone will write a good historical novel about him in English sometime soon.

Once finished with the King Sejong part of the exhibit, the Asia Vu party headed back the way they came toward the Admiral Yi exhibit.  While MsCaroline had heard quite a bit about the famous Turtle Ships, she had not known much else about their inventor and commander, Admiral Yi Sunsin, or that this exhibit was co-located under Gwangwhamun Square with King Sejong's (in retrospect, given that there is an equally enormous statue of Admiral Yi in the same square, she should have figured this out, but MsC has never claimed to be the brightest bulb in the box.)  
Admiral Yi Sunsin

MsCaroline had been pretty fascinated with the Turtle Ships (1500s super-fortified warship, complete with spikes sticking out of the deck to prevent enemies from boarding - awesome stuff) ever since hearing a podcast about them on Stuff You Missed in History Class, so she was eager to learn more about them.  As a bonus, she had the opportunity to learn about Admiral Yi, who turned out to be a commander whose examples and teachings have been followed by some of  the world's greatest military thinkers, and whose nobility and self-sacrifice are revered to this day.  

MsCaroline found herself wishing desperately that she could have visited this exhibit with Sons#1 and #2 when they were in grade school, because it really was right up a little kid's alley:  plenty of 3-d models, a cool film re-enactment, and (coolest of all) a 2/3-sized replica of one of the infamous turtle ships:

Turtle ship diagram

Spikes on the deck of the Turtle Ship.  these were covered with mats so that invading sailors could not see them until they landed on them.  Excellent.
Interior of Turtle Ship replica

Replicas of Admiral Yi's Devil Swords, presented to him as a token of esteem by the Chinese Emperor during the Ming Dynasty.  MsCaroline assumes they are purely ceremonial, since they look like they're about 7 feet long.

The exhibit included a timeline and history of Admiral Yi as well as some quotes by notable military experts praising Admiral Yi's management and strategic methods.  What impressed MsCaroline the most was that he allowed all of his men, regardless of rank, to participate in meetings and to express their opinions, two things that were almost anathema to the strictly hierarchical Korean culture of the time. 

Once they had finished with the two permanent exhibitions, MsCaroline and her companions headed to their original destination:  the Robert Capa photo exhibit. Capa was a Hungarian-born war photographer who was active from the 1930s-1950s and who took many photographs that are today considered iconic and that appeared in many of the top newspapers and magazines of the day. A number of original magazine and print articles are included as part of the exhibit. The exhibit included photos spanning Capa's career, which ended in 1954 when he stepped on a landmine while on assignment for Life magazine during the first Indochina War.  As with most traveling exhibits, photography is not allowed inside the exhibit.

Entrance to the Robert Capa Exhibit

The topic, of course, was, primarily, war, and the mood in the gallery was silent and serious as befitted the subject matter.  There were a few lighthearted photos in the collection -notably this one of Pablo Picasso with his son, Claude, at the beach - but most of the images were quite somber, including iconic photos taken during the D-Day invasion of Normandy that supposedly inspired the film, Saving Private Ryan.  The locations changed and the wars changed, but the death and destruction remained a grim constant.  

The quality of the photography was, of course, outstanding, and the exhibit should appeal to both WWII history buffs and photography buffs alike. All photos are clearly marked in English, and there is also a short film (which MsCaroline did not watch.)  As with all temporary museum exhibits in Seoul, it's best to get there early and (if possible) go on a weekday - the crowd grows quickly!

Queue for the Capa exhibit when we left.  When we'd arrived, there hadn't been one.

By the time MsCaroline, MrL and LC had finished, the crowd had gotten significantly bigger, and the 3 of them were glad to head homeward, richer for the experience and ready for a beer. 

Outside the Capa exhibit.

If you go:

The Sejong Center for the Performing Arts is located in Gwangwhamun Square in the Jongno neighborhood of Seoul and easily accessible by subway. We entered the Robert Capa exhibit by going from the King Sejong/Admiral Yi museums underground, but you can also enter above ground through a number of entrances. This temporary exhibit will be in Seoul through October 28th.  The Center Complex houses a number of permanent and temporary exhibits, as well as featuring musical and cultural performances and events. Tickets to the Capa exhibit are KRW12,000 for adults, KRW9,000 for students, and KRW8,000 for children. Closed Mondays.

King Sejong/Admiral Yi Exhibits:  You can go in through the Sejong Center, or (more easily) through the entrance directly under the statue of King Sejong in Gwanngwhamun Square.  Admission is free to both exhibits and they are  foreigner- and kid-friendly.  Clean, accessible restrooms, a gift shop, and a cafe.  

Hours:  10:30am-10:00pm:  Closed Mondays and some holidays.

To get there:    Take Subway Line 5 to Gwangwhamun, go out Exit 1 or 2


BavarianSojourn said…
I do love your descriptions of Seoul's Museums... they sound fascinating! :)
MsCaroline said…
They really are - and there are so many of them!
Stacy said…
Sounds like a great morning out! How incredible is that garden, right in the city?! You'd never know from the photos that there was city around at all, especially with the background of hills. Are you allowed to take your students on field trips? The museum exhibit looks like it would be a great one. You could make them read the English commentary and captions. :)
Holly said…
You know what a geek I am, and you probably know that I'm addicted to Mythbusters. So, here's the answer to the name of the rolling arrow machine:


Trish said…
Learned lots of new things here, especially the facts about Hangul.

I know what you mean about taking photos - I am not a photographer and would love my blog to have better pictures. Some turn out well but usually that's more luck than judgement. I keep looking at my snaps from Austria and only a handful are any good - the rest don't do justice to the scenery at all. Having said that - these pics are pretty good, MsC!
MsCaroline said…
Stacy - yes, it's really hard to believe it's downtown Seoul, although if you look closely you can see a high-rise peeking in on the left. The 'hills' are actually mountains - Seoul is surrounded by them and there are a number of them within the city limits - #1 pasttime here is hiking! I would love to take the kids on a field trip here - will have to suggest it when we do our plan for the year!
MsCaroline said…
Holly - yes, I know and love your geekiness and should not have been surprised that you found this out for me!
MsCaroline said…
Trish - yes, we had no idea how fortunate we were to be in Korea where the alphabet can be learned so easily. It makes you appreciate the genius behind its development all the more as a foreigner! As far as pictures go - yours are always very good; I think part of it is that when you are in the actual setting, it's hard to ever appreciate the photos because they're a pale reflection. I *did* actually bring along my good camera, but (dumb, dumb) forgot to charge its battery, so only could take a couple of photos - I suspect those are the best ones!

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