|The Divine Bell of King Seongdeok|
My first stop was at Cheomseongdae. You would not think by looking at it, but Cheomseongdae is truly historic scientific landmark. It is the oldest standing observatory in East Asia, and one of the oldest in the world. I had initially missed this structure while looking for it because it looks nothing like how anyone in the modern world would expect an observatory to be (I guess it was silly to be looking for a giant telescope).
I didn't get too close to Cheomseongdae. As I neared the lovely park it rested in, marked by endless fields of yellow flowers and colossal burial mounds (the kind that would put ancient Native Americans to shame), I was blocked by a wave of children crossing the street and marching straight into the park. I thought it was curious, but wrote them off as the local elementary school taking a field trip. As I journeyed a little ways farther another busload of children swarmed through my path. Then there was another, and another, and another. There was no end to them! With each passing swarm came a volley of shouts going Hi! Hello! Nice to meet you! and Yo Man!
|The Swarm Approaches...|
Every student greeted me in English as soon as they spotted me, and I was hard to miss. They greeted me until I returned the pleasantries, growing louder and more abrasive with each hello that went unacknowledged. I think they thought I was being rude not always answering the calls, but sometimes the children were so mocking in tone or yelling from so far away that they were not simply being friendly. They were obnoxious. So I began answering their English with French. It might sound like I was being immature. I won't deny it. It must have been extremely confusing for a few kids who noticed my backpack carried the logo of a well-known English-language hagwon on it.
To be fair, the children made the museum proper far more interesting than it would have been otherwise. Gyeongju is sometimes called "The Museum without Walls" and nothing could be truer. There are dozens of locations just around the town with historic significance for South Korea, many temples and tombs. This city had been the capital of Silla, one of the Three Korean Kingdoms and a very prominent one (eventually overtaking the other two) that lasted nearly a thousand years (57 BC to 935 AD). You can see this former glory in many places within the city and the surrounding area. But, the displays at the literal museum are mostly as interesting as looking at rocks (and for me there was little explanation about why the very old rocks were so praiseworthy).
Much can be learned from history and there is an incredible need for us to preserve ancient relics for research and understanding. That said, there are certain things when seen crammed together at a museum are incredibly dull. Buddha statues are the first to come to mind. Based on my time at that museum I can only think of three things that were on the minds of the ancient Sillan people: Buddha, Zodiac signs, and women dressing as men. They constructed Buddhas with the same fervor ancient Europeans amassed art to Christ.
|Woman in Man's Clothing (Left); Tricolor Heavenly King (Right)|
There were many ancient works on display aside from piles of old Buddhas and cross-dressers. In one room sits the gold crown worn by the early Sillan ruler Maripgan, who was credited for establishing a genuine hereditary monarchy in the nation (I have to separate myself from my brain to appreciate that achievement). Other rooms feature ancient treasures dating back to prehistory. Many of them look like it. There was a pot shaped like a duck I found entertaining, a heavenly god statue that would be described as "demonic" in appearance by ancient Europeans, and a cup shaped like a warrior on horseback that seemed incredibly impractical but is regarded as a national treasure.
The only problem I had with all these works was, as should be expected, any explanation for their existence was written in Korean. They wrote the names of every item in English, which just made it worse. I knew what they were, but I had know idea what that meant. For a while I stalked a couple monks walking around the museum. One led the other to each display and with passionate gestures he told lengthy stories about which king owned this and what monks crafted that. The other man listened with unwavering fascination, never taking his eyes off each work as they were explained to him. I had no clue what the monks were actually saying, but I loved how they moved about the rooms, carefully and wide-eyed.
One of the largest and grandest artifacts to see was the Seongdeokdaewang-Sinjong, or Divine Bell of King Seongdeok. The massive instrument rests in the open air, surrounded by hordes of tourists, and is the first thing you notice as you enter the museum grounds. It is credited as the biggest and nicest bell in all of Korea, and was commissioned by the late King Seongdeok's son, who was also a king and died before it was finished. The legacy of the son, King Gyeongdeok, can be seen in the stunning Bulguksa Temple. But so many kings of yesteryear spent all their time constructing monuments to their own glory (and never seeing them completed) it can be comforting to know that some ancient king died in the process of honoring someone other than himself.
|Two monks touring the museum|
My favorite aspect of art has never really been in the history (though I do enjoy that) or creator of it, but in the juxtaposition of art, comparing Western to Eastern, modern to ancient, cooperate to religious. It is all the stranger when you start comparing people to the art around them. Sometimes old men or monks will walk about sacred objects with reverence and fascination. They are truly important works in their eyes. Then you will see the graffiti hidden along the back of a shrine or the children running around old statues, not concerned with their historical value, but searching for pieces marked for them as part of a scavenger hunt. To them, the objects aren't sacred at all, just old buildings and rocks.