When I visited the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul last year, I went with low expectations. Because the project was conceived and completed during the term of then-President Lee Myung-bak, I was skeptical that the resulting museum would be balanced and fair. Sure enough, as critics have pointed out, the museum fails to do its subject justice.
But then, a government-funded retrospective about a country’s modern history is virtually guaranteed to kick up a honest’s nest of political biases, philosophical differences and historical controversies. Despite its myriad flaws, I’d still recommend the museum to anyone who’s curious about the country’s recent past.
The exhibits begin with the closing decades of the Chosun Dynasty and address the Japanese colonial period and the independence movement. But the museum focuses most of its attention on post-war South Korean history, which encompasses the April 19, 1960, student demonstrations that forced Syngman Rhee out of office, Park Chung-hee’s ambitious economic development initiatives, the student protests that dogged the contemptible Chun Doo-hwan and the country’s ultimate transition to democratic government.
Given the conservative Lee administration’s role in overseeing the museum’s creation, it wasn’t terribly surprising to see the exhibits gloss over the human rights abuses of the Rhee, Park and Chun regimes while giving short shrift to the achievements of the country’s first democratically elected civilian presidents, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung.
This highly selective approach does an effective job of downplaying the shameful aspects of the country’s history. But by doing so, it also deflates much of the drama of the exhibits by minimizing the distance that South Korea has traveled from the decades it spent under successive dictatorships. The ideological point of view is strikingly different from the one on display at the May 18th National Cemetery in Gwangju, which commemorates that city’s pro-democracy uprising in 1980.
More surprising is the museum’s lackadaisical approach to non-political topics. The dearth of sports-related exhibits — other than a few displays devoted to the 1988 Seoul Olympics — is odd given the headline-grabbing success of South Korean athletes in golf, figure skating and baseball. Even worse is the museum’s woefully inadequate account of the dramatic flowering of South Korean pop culture and how Korean TV dramas, movies and pop music have conquered foreign shores.
Despite these serious shortfalls, I still think that the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History is worth a visit. The story it tells — i.e., how a wretchedly poor, war-shattered southern-half-of-a-Confucian-country somehow managed to emerge as the world’s 15th largest economy, a raucous democracy and an influential center of popular culture — is so compelling that even a regrettably slanted account can’t eliminate the sense of wonder you’re left with at the end.