National Folk Museum of Korea in Seoul

Located inside the walls of Gyeongbokgung palace (경복궁) is one of Seoul’s best values – the entirely free National Folk Museum of Korea (국립민속박물관).

Wooden carvings of men dancing displayed at the National Folk Museum of Seoul.

Established in 1945, the museum provides a great primer on the daily lives of Korea’s people over the centuries, from the prehistoric days until the present.

The museum’s purpose is not only to acquire and exhibit artifacts related to Korean folk life, but also to research and preserve it.

With an impressive collection of over 4,000 historical artifacts that’s presented in well-captioned displays, it’s a joy to peruse the National Folk Museum of Korea‘s three permanent exhibitions. Let’s take a closer look.

Exhibition Hall 1 is dedicated to the “History of the Korean People.”

A glass display case with ceramic pottery, some small vases, others a little larger, all set on white surface, spotlit with a dimly lit background.
Photo from here.

This hall features everyday items commonly used among Koreans past and present, as well as a timeline of daily life as Korean culture developed from the Paleolithic and Bronze Ages to Korea’s territorial expansion during the Three Kingdoms and Silla eras.

Towards the end of this section, the exhibit chronicles the development of typography and printing during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties, while the final part concludes with the impact of Korea’s gradual opening to the West.

Exhibition Hall 2 of the National Folk Museum of Korea focuses on the “Korean Way of Life.”

The displays in this section pay particular attention to the Joseon period, or the 518 years between 1392 and 1910, when Korea was colonized by Japan. The exhibit focuses on traditional village life, where cuisine, folk arts and crafts became highly refined.

A painting of three elderly men, dressed in yellow robes, with black hats and long straggly beards.
Photo from here.

The section also includes a recreated traditional marketplace, which served as the primary social venue during the era.

And finally, Exhibition Hall 3 of the National Folk Museum of Korea follows the major events in a traditional Korean’s life.

Organized through the life cycle of an upper-class individual during the Joseon era, visitors can witness the role of Confucianism on binding the family and greater society.

Furthermore, common rituals, such as the 100-day celebration for newborns, coming-of-age ceremonies, wedding protocol and state examinations are all detailed in beautiful exhibits.

The full life-cycle continues with explanations of the three-year mourning period that follows a parent’s death, and the ongoing memorial rites that are performed every subsequent year.

What’s remarkable is how many, if not most, of these traditions are still observed in modern Korea.

A photograph with a blue overlay of a man and a woman kissing, just their heads are visible in the frame.
Photo from here.

In addition to the three permanent exhibition halls are two special exhibition spaces. Recent examples include a rare collection of hats and shoes, the work of traditional artisans, and the just concluded 36th annual Korean Traditional Handicraft Art Exhibition.

Beyond the National Folk Museum of Korea’s excellent collection, is the fact that the building that houses these items is itself a piece of art.

External view of the National Folk Museum of Seoul, a large imposing concrete building with ornate curved roof on four different levels, the center of the frame shows stairs leading up to the arched entranceway, either side are stairs leading up beside it, with a blue sky background in bright sunshine.
Photo from here.

The striking five-story pagoda is built atop a huge stone foundation, and makes for a focal point of the palace complex.

Once again, since access to the museum is free, it makes for a great bookend to any exploration of Gyeongbokgung palace.

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About Matt Kelley

Matt Kelly is native of the US Pacific Northwest and is half-Korean by ethnicity. He lived in Korea for five years and has written hundreds of travel guides for Wallpaper, TimeOut, the Boston Globe and Seoul Magazine and was a host for several different variety shows on Korean radio and television.

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