Fans of Korean period dramas such as court romance Love In The Moonlight (2016) will be over the moon with a new blockbuster exhibition on the Joseon era, one of the longest-running dynasties in Korea, at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) in Singapore.

The Joseon Korea: Court Treasures And City Life exhibition, which opened recently, is the museum’s largest to date and the first of its scale to come from South Korea to Singapore.

The 500-year Joseon dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1897, fundamentally shaped Korean culture as it is known today, whether through hanbok fashion or the hangeul writing system.

The exhibition, which was three years in the making, features more than 150 artefacts cherry-picked from South Korea’s national museums, such as a sun and moon silk screen that the king sat in front of, or a 45m-long handscroll depicting, in enormous detail, the 6,000 people accompanying King Jeongjo on his visit to his father’s tomb.

ACM director Kennie Ting, 38, says: “Many Singaporeans are familiar with Korean TV shows and music and food. There is a natural affinity and we hope that through this exhibition, they will find the origins of the things they are familiar with in popular Korean culture.”

Curator Kan Shuyi, 33, hopes visitors will be drawn not just to the major artefacts, but also to the humbler ceramics, such as a “moon jar” of white porcelain which embodies the pure aesthetic of the era’s neo-Confucianism, and a 17th-century vessel she describes as “the crazy dragon jar”, on which is drawn a googly-eyed dragon that is more whimsical than fearsome.

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Visitors look at a Korean handscroll painting exhibited at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. Photo: AFP

The historical exhibition is accompanied by a multimedia art installation, Becoming Again; Coming Together, by award-winning South Korean artist Ran Hwang.

It is the largest installation to date by Hwang, 57, who is based in New York and Seoul.

It evokes the earthly through projections of a wedding couple in hanbok robes and a gallery hung with bunches of white peppers, a Confucian custom that heralds the birth of male offspring, and juxtaposes it with the eternal, represented by phoenixes in flight. Traditional music from the Joseon era plays in the background.

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A replica of a Korean queen’s ceremonial robe is displayed at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. Photo: AFP

Hwang’s installations are laborious affairs. This one involves 50,000 pins, each of which had to be hammered into walls or Plexiglas panels, at least 25 times to be secure. The pins hold up handmade paper buttons, beads and about 5km of thread in intricate designs of flowers, spiderwebs and birds.

National Museum of Korea director general Yi Young-Hoon, 60, says through a translator: “I hope through this exhibition, Singaporeans can better understand Koreans’ minds, and this will help mutual exchange and deepen relationships between our cultures.”

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The Sun, Moon And Five Peaks six-fold silk screen pictures the landscape of ancient Korea. Photo: Straits Times Singapore/ANN

‘Well-connected’

Visitors describe the exhibition as “well-connected”.

Tourist Hanne Larsen, 45, a senior museum consultant from Denmark, says: “The way it showed the historical context was very illustrative. Otherwise, it would have been just a lot of beautiful artefacts you didn’t understand.”

Singaporean housewife Elena Lee, 55, a fan of K-dramas such as Saimdang, Light’s Diary (2017), about a Joseon-era female artist, says: “I’ve always liked Korean history and would go to Wikipedia to read up about it. This is a good opportunity for me to see the real thing.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Olivia Ho


Joseon Korea Court Treasures And City Life is on at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore till July 23. More info: acm.org.sg.

Editor’s Note, May 15: This article has been updated with corrections, following a letter from the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS). “The article states Joseon Dynasty is the longest-running dynasty, but ‘Silla’ is the longest-sustained kingdom. It was the kingdom ruled south-eastern Korea from 72 BC to 935 AD. Joseon is one of the longest-running dynasties in Korea, but not the longest. Secondly, ‘hangeul’ is the correct Romanization of hangul.”