The center of Seoul has a lot to offer: great food, historic locations, and fantastic museums. Many that visit this beacon of Asia spend their days at the National Museum, the Seoul Arts Center, or War Memorial Museum (all are fantastic, by-the-way), but I have a special place in my heart for two lesser known museums that you can literally walk over and never see: The Story of King Sejong and Admiral Yi.
Just south of Gyeongbok Palace is the sprawling Gwanghwamun Plaza, so named from the palace gate at its northern end. While a tourist destination in and of itself, the plaza is home to two marvelous museums that are open and free to the public. Entry can be made from the Sejong Center, the plaza itself (beneath the bronze statue of the great king), or from subway line five (Gwanghwamun station). Both museums are roughly one level below ground and accessed via stairs or elevator from the surface. Once inside, you’re presented with a myriad of information and relics about these two amazing men from Korea’s past.
King Sejong was the Joseon Dynasty’s fourth king and responsible for developing Hangeul (the Korean written language), complex sundials and other celestial measuring tools, and civil advancements. Visitors can stop by the main information desk and checkout a PDA (available in five languages) that explains each exhibit in detail. Simple touch the device to a printed number, and it tells the listener the item’s complete history.
What I found most interesting while visiting this museum, was the number of exhibits tied into multimedia consoles. Some digitally dress patrons in Joseon era attire, while other replicate military and scientific inventions using holographic displays. Other exhibits detail various accounts of Sejong’s life.
The museum itself is quite large and it’s easy to spend well over an hour learning about this great man. Periodically, the museum draws upon its resources and offers free educational concerts in the main hall. During these events, musicians play traditional instruments and explain their history (however, these events are only in Korean).
While The Story of King Sejong is beneath Gwanghwamun Plaza, the adjoining Story of Admiral Yi museum is located directly under the Sejong Center. Entry can be made from either, but my recommendation is via the Sejong museum, since you can obtain the PDA there and use it in both exhibition halls.
Admiral Yi Sunshin is probably Korea’s greatest military hero. He earned this acclaim during the Imjin War (Japanese invasion of Korea 1592-1598) where his prowess as warrior handed Japan one of its greatest military defeats. In fact, in twenty-three sea battles, Admiral Yi remain undefeated.
Like it’s counterpart, the Admiral Yi museum contains numerous relics from the period including dairies, weapons, and a scale replica of the infamous “turtle ships” used in battle. Admiral Yi is credited with building these 30-meter long vessels, which proved to be invaluable in turning the tide in many battles.
Many of the exhibits focus on the various battles of the Imjin War. Detailed accounts of Yi’s battles appear both in written format and in multimedia presentations. However, probably the greatest draw for children are the hands-on experiences.
In my opinion, the museum has two great teaching aids enabling the current generation an opportunity the period’s hardships. First, a video game where participants must man an ore and paddle a retreating boat conveys the harsh life of a sailor. A second game allows visitors to shoot guns and canons at attacking Japanese ships, providing insight into the complexity of naval warfare.
Both these museums provide an excellent glimpse into Korea’s history and culture. Many of the downtown sights close around dinner time, so when visiting them, I highly recommend spending an extra hour or two to catch these museums, especially since they’re open until 10:30pm (and FREE!).
- Location: Gwanghwamun Plaza/Sejong Center for the Performing Arts
- Subway: Line Number Five (Gwanghwamun Plaza), Line Number Three (Gyeongbok Palace)
- Hours: 10:30am – 10:30pm, except Mondays.
- Admission: FREE!!!!!
- Website: http://www.sisul.or.kr/global/square/eng/sub1/sub_01_10.jsp
- Phone: +82-2-1330 (Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese) / +82-2-399-1154 (Korean)