Korean Royal History: ‘Photographs of the Daehan Imperial Family

Category : Korean Cultures
Nov 26, 2014
This is the first photo taken of the Daehan Imperial Family.

I am usually not one to believe in stereotypes.  However if there is one stereotype that rings true about Koreans it’s that they LOVE photography.  Today I learned that we have the Daehan Imperial Family and Japan to thank for this national hobby.


The Daehan Imperial Family ruled Korea from 1897-1910.  At this time the future of Korean would forever be changed.  Not only would Japan occupy Korea for 35 years, but the groundwork for budding photographers was also laid.  The Japanese brought photography technology to Korea and the Daehan family popularized it.  King Gojong developed a special interest in photography and enjoyed having his picture taken.


Despite all the photography fun, the Daehan family had a difficult life.  Their story marks the end of the Korean imperial dynasty and the beginning of a devastating Japanese occupation.  Their rule came to an abrupt close when Japan forced King Gojong to abdicate in 1907.  In 1910 while Korea was militarily weak and economically poor, Japan signed the Japan Treaty which gave full sovereignty of Korea over to Japan.


The National Museum of Art, located on the grounds of Deoksugung Palace, unveiled a new exhibition today: ‘Photographs of the Daehan Imperial Family’.  The show, which runs from Nov 15, 2012- Jan 13, 2013, consists of 200 photographs that document the life story of the family.  I attended the press conference this morning and I learned a few tidbits about Korean history that were fascinating.  I also had the chance to tour the exhibition and talk to the curator.


This is King Gojong and the first Crown Prince, Sunjong who  became the last King of Korea from 1907-1910.

The exhibition is well done.  All of the photographs are originals mostly brought in from the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC.  They are displayed in 2 large rooms in the museum.  Each picture has a brief caption in English and Korean.  The most impressive part of the show is the extensive historical commentary in ENGLISH!  The exhibition takes viewers back in time beginning when King Gojong was crowned and then moves on to the stories of his sons and daughters through the World Wars.


The curator told me that this period is remarkable because it was the first time in Korea that history was recorded through photography.  At that time, photography was used primarily as a means of documentation which is why we see portraits rather than landscapes.  King Gojong made small postcards with his photograph on them.  He distributed his images like we do our business cards today.  The photograph provided a means of diplomatic relations.

This is the postcard with King Gojong's picture on it.

I also learned that 3 groups of people took photographs of the Daehan Family: Koreans, Japanese and Westerners.  In fact, Percival Lowell, the US foreign secretary and Korean diplomatic specialist, took many pictures during his 4 month stay in Korea.  He then wrote a book which included his photos called “Choson: The Land of the Morning Calm”. 


This is one of three photos that are thought to be Queen Min.

As I walked through the exhibition I read each family member’s tragic tale.  I liked the story about Empress Myeonseong, also known as Queen Min, the best.  She was a strong, smart woman who advised her husband on political issues.  She encouraged him to strengthen diplomatic relations with Russia because she knew that the Japanese were a ruthless colonial power.  The Japanese felt threatened by her and had her murdered in 1895.  Furthermore, there were barely any photographs taken of the Queen.  In fact, historians are unsure of what she looked like and so the pictures that do exist are not confirmed to be of her.  There are three photographs on display that are thought to be the Queen.

These are the other 2 photos that are thought to be Queen Min.

The last crown Prince, Yi Eun has the saddest story of all.  He was born in 1897, but at the age of 11, after being invested as the Crown Prince Yeongchinwang, he was kidnapped by the Japanese.  He was taken to Japan where he was raised and educated.  In 1945 after liberation, Yi Eun wanted to return to Korea, but President Syngman Rhee refused his request.  President Syngman Rhee feared that any royal family member may threaten his leadership over the country.  Yi Eun finally returned to Korea in 1963, but became sick and remained bedridden until his death in 1970.


This is the last Crown Prince Yi Eun at age 11.

This exhibition is a tour through history and much more than a few photographs on a wall.  Royal family stories are always intriguing and the Daehan Family is no different.  The show runs from Nov. 16, 2012- Jan. 13, 2012.  The National Museum of Art is open from 10am-7pm, Tues-Thur and from 10am-9pm, Fri-Sun, closed on Mon.  There are guided exhibition tours at 11:30am, 1:30pm, 2:30pm, and 4:30pm from Nov.17-Dec. 2.  Then from Dec 4.2012-Jan 13, 2013 they will be held at 11:30am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, 2:30pm, 3:30pm, and 4:30pm.  Every Sat and Sun they have additional tours at 10:30am and 5:30pm.  Admission is a steal at 4,000won per person.


The National Museum of Art is located at Deoksugung Palace downtown beside Seoul Plaza.  Please take the dark blue subway line 1 or the bright green line 2 to City Hall Station.  Take exit 2 from line 1 or exit 12 from line 2.


Photos taken from MMCA.

Tags : Art. Culture. Royal. Family. Museum

Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.