I really love visiting museums. Where else can you cross a thousand years of history in a few hundred metres, or from central London to deepest Patagonia? I have a sentimental fondness for the V&A in London, and have been to some other great places, such as the breathtaking National Palace Museum in Taipei to the highly specialist Quilt Museum in Boston. Luckily for me, Seoul has a great blend of museums at both ends of the spectrum, from the expanse of the National Museum of Korea, or several, small gems of textile history.
One such gem is the Chojun Textile & Quilt Art Museum. For a modest entry fee, you can see a beautiful collection of traditional Korean clothing, alongside patchwork pieces, traditional and modern. They often have international exhibitions. During my visit, there was a very impressive display from the Textile Study Group of New York, all around the theme of red, and a selection of pieces from Mariëlle Huijsmans, a Dutch textile artist, as part of the ‘East Meets West’ collection. These were bojagi/pojagi-inspired pieces with lots of lively colours that definitely spoke to my colour palate!
Bojagi is technically a type of wrapping cloth, that is used to wrap gifts or in religious ceremonies, similar to furoshiki in Japan. One of the styles of bojagi, known also as min-bo or chogak bo, is the patchwork-style often considered synonymous with bojagi but there are a wealth of varieties out there, often made with gorgeous, sheer fabrics.
The highlight of the museum for me were the historical clothing and embroidery pieces. Many of these are listed as being for royalty for various occasions, and come with all the sumptuous embroidery and gold trimmings you might expect. If you’re not a Korean or Japanese-speaker, the signage in the museum is really lacking. It’s also often not clear what time period various garments are from – it’s advertised as being from the Joseon Dynasty but if you’re as ignorant as I am to the historical cues for dating such pieces, then that still leaves you with five hundred years of error. That aside though, if you want to see beautiful things and learn some new vocabulary for different types of cloth and textiles, then this is a great place to visit.
As well as the gorgeous hanbok, the museum has some lovely examples of chasu, the fine Korean embroidery style, and some fun mannequins adorned with traditional clothing but bojagi skirts. I think I remember reading something that one of the founders was a chasu expert but I may be mistaken… but there are plenty of lovely items and accessories to gaze at regardless. I love nihon shishu, the iconic ‘traditional’ Japanese embroidery worked mostly in flat silks, but it doesn’t quite have the same fun, bold sense of colour that you see in chasu.
Overall, the balance of the museum is more weighted to the contemporary textiles, and there’s a long corridor where you can gaze on many gorgeous, modern quilts. I did really enjoy the work from the Textile Study Group of New York; the individual pieces were of course all fantastically made, but the common colour theme spanning a huge range of techniques and textures made for a very striking exhibition. If you’re really immersed in your fabrics, it’ll probably take an hour to make it around this museum but, if you’re in the middle of a humid Asian summer, it’s also a blessedly temperate escape from the outside and a very tranquil location to enjoy some lively textiles. Definitely worth slipping into a visit to Seoul.
Do stop by their incredibly bizarre collection of dolls from all over the world too; they’re definitely an exercise in national stereotypes but I did rather enjoy the one representing England! Look at that sewing machine!
If that has whet your appetite for even more textile exploration, there are another two embroidery-focused museum in Seoul. I didn’t have time to make it to the Chung Young Yang Embroidery Museum, which I am a little sad about in retrospect as it looks amazing from the virtual tour you can embark on. The other museum is the Han Sang Soo Embroidery Museum, tucked away in the Folk Village, near where I went for the maedeup class. Very small but beautiful. The other is the Museum of Korean Embroidery.
This museum proved to be an excellent lesson in disappointment and that sometimes those kind souls issuing warnings on Trip Advisor really are doing so out of the goodness of their heart. I can show you two photos of the place, one of the sign outside, another of the lift, because after a little bit of questionable shadowing someone through the main door, I found the place was shut and there seemed to be a lot of major renovations happening in the building… I had checked online and it was definitely within the opening hours featured on many websites but it sounds like even if I had managed to find my way in, I wasn’t going to be treated to the textile collection of my dreams either… If anyone has seen the elusive insides, please let me know in the comments!
As it’s a shame to end a post on a bad note, I just wanted to share some of my favourite parts of the National Museum of Korea. Some beautiful 19th-20th century maedeup accessories (one with a little perfume case!), a 19th century spinning wheel from Myanmar and some paintings and calligraphy, mostly by unknown artists! The National Museum is an incredible place to visit, particularly if you’re a fan of the silver-inlaid lacquerwork that is a Korean speciality. One quirky feature of the place is some of the upstairs galleries are all personal collections that were donated, so the central theme is subject to the whims of the collector. This means there are some rather unusual collections, including one dedicated to roof tiles (far more exciting and decorative than it sounds!), that make for an interesting perspective on history.