Korea is a new rising nation but it might be surprising to know its roughly half a million years of history. The current capital of Korea, Seoul's history can be traced back as far as 18 BC, and it has been the capital of numerous kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula since it was established.
Seoul was the capital of the Joseon Dynasty, and Seoul Museum of History depicts the evolution from its prehistoric period to the city it is today capturing the traditional culture of Seoul. Vestiges from the prehistoric era to modern Seoul are on display. The museum was renovated with modern updates in May 2002, 17 years after opening. The main exhibit halls are on the 3rd floor. Many of the Joseon Dynasty relics were donated during the Relic Donation Campaign. Also, the landscape of Seoul is recreated when it was the capital of the Joseon Dynasty. Another exhibit showcases the daily life of the Seoulites, while another presents items through an online cyber museum. The 1st floor has many convenient facilities such as a coat check and the Kids Corner playroom.
The Special Exhibition Hall, the Exhibition Hall for Donated Relics, and Museum Shop where cultural products are produced and sold, are also on the 1st floor.
If you enjoy dainty foods and tea, visit the Gyeonghuigung Café. It is a cozy spot which stays open after museum hours.
The Joseon Capital
Establishment of the King’s Residence
Having seen the lay of the land, this site is suitable for the royal capital. It is accessible to the sea and is centrally located in the kingdom, bringing convenience to people’s lives.” In 1394, King Taejo uttered these words upon viewing Hanyang. Soon after, the Main Palace compound, Altars to the Gods of Soil and Grain, and Royal Ancestral Shrine were built, thereby finalizing the establishment of the new royal house and garnering the loyalty of the people. In addition, products from around the entire kingdom were brought to Hanyang, the new Joseon capital.
1863 ~ 1910
Taking Tradition Forward with Aspirations for an Imperial Capital
The winds of change began to sweep across the Joseon capital from the middle of the 19th century. The reconstruction of Gyeongbokgung Palace, which had lay in ruins for more than two and a half centuries, started in 1865 as part of efforts to make over the city where the king resided.
French warships appeared on the Hangang River shortly thereafter as imperialist powers began to encroach on the capital. From this time on, new ideas and things found their way into the lives of the people, to include Western-style buildings as well as the use of electricity and petroleum.
The international status of the state was upgraded from the Joseon kingdom to the Daehan Empire in 1897. Seoul (then still officially known as Hanseong) transformed steadily into a city that was a mixture of East Asian tradition and Western modernity. Gyeongungung Palace (now Deoksugung) became the imperial palace; new streets were built, and a streetcar line was installed along Jongno. Several public parks appeared as well. In 1904, however, the Japanese military, which occupied the capital, dashed the hopes of the Daehan Empire.
1910 ~ 1945
Seoul under Japanese Control
Shades of Modern Urbanization
In August 1910, Japan forcibly annexed the Daehan Empire and established the Japanese Government-General.
This institution held virtually absolute authority over administrative, military, legislative and judicial matters.
The prefectures for Seoul, Incheon, Gaeseong and Gyeonggido were put under the newly formed Gyeongseongbu (Capital Prefecture). However Seoul (then officially known as Gyeongseong) remained the capital. Located here were the headquarters of the colonial government, along with major businesses, schools and cultural institutions.
Ethnic discrimination became institutionalized. Persons of Japanese nationality were in charge of all administrative functions, and resources were concentrated in the area south of Cheonggyecheon, where the Japanese lived. Although Korean residents opposed the discriminatory practices, the allure of the “Namchon (southern neighborhood)” did not diminish.
This was where the latest products and modern developments could be experienced, but the Korean residents were reduced to onlookers only. The Korean capital modernized quickly under Japanese colonial rule, but the modernity of a colonial city merely fascinated Koreans. It did not include them.
1945 ~ 2002
Period of Rapid Growth Seoul
Rising from the Ashes to become a Metropolis
Seoul became the capital of a sovereign nation in 1945, with Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, and three years later, it was upgraded to “Special City” status. However, the city was plagued by poverty as refugees poured in from North Korea and masses of ethnic Koreans returned to their homeland from overseas. Making matters worse, the Korean War broke out in 1950, and soon the city was in ruins. After the war, economic development returned, and Seoul began to transform into a huge, modern metropolis. The construction industry advanced steadily with the pressing need for more water mains, sewage systems, roads, subways, housing and schools to accommodate the explosive population growth. Streets were laid in the area south of the Hangang River, and the boundaries of the Seoul metropolitan area continued to expand. The ‘Miracle on the Han River’ brought industrialization, economic growth, democratization, and governmental decentralization to the nation.
Seoul, Now and in the Making...
The City Model Image Hall
The hall serves as a multifunctional exhibition space that holds lectures or seminars about urban life. It is also used as an educational tool for students and citizens to understand the city's natural and urban environment, while presenting foreigners the improvements that Seoul has made and its future vision to raise the city's profile.
Exhibition Hall of Donated Collection
Exhibition Hall 1: Leading craftspeople of Seoul
Displaying the donated work pieces (handicrafts and folk liquor) by 29 people (including four deceased) designated as intangible cultural properties of Seoul.
Exhibition Hall 2: 20 Years after 1994
Visitors will see what the life of people in Seoul was like in 1994, the 600th anniversary of Seoul’s designation as the capital of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
Exhibition Hall 3: High ranking officials of Hanyang (today’s Seoul)
Exhibition Hall 3 displays relics from noble families who lived in Hanyang during the Joseon Dynasty. The high ranking officials were those who followed Confucianism and held government positions. These individuals studied Confucianism from a young age, and were considered to be scholars. They took national examinations and took high-ranking government positions after passing the examinations. In particular, the nobles who resided in Hanyang were central figures in leading politics and society during the Joseon Dynasty. In Exhibition Hall 3, visitors can see the lifestyles of nobles and the culture of Hanyang through the donated relics that have been passed down through several famous families of the Joseon Dynasty.
Exhibition Hall 4: Unhyeongung Palace
Exhibition Hall 4 displays the relics from Unhyeongung Palace, which was the private residence of Prince Regent Heungseon. King Gojong was born and lived at this residence until he was 12 years old. After Gojong's ascension to the throne, Unhyeongung Palace became the center of Prince Regent Heungseon 's reformative politics. It was the birthplace of reformation, and it was where reformative politics were conceived and practiced during Daewongun's 10 years as regent. Unhyeongung Palace scaled down and changed several times in the midst of modern architecture, but it tells stories about the tumultuous historical times during the dawn of modern Korea. Descendants of the Unhyeongung Palace, who have maintained the palace even under difficulties, have donated some 6,000 relics to the Seoul Museum of History. Visitors will be able to sense the culture of the last royal families of the Joseon Dynasty through these relics.
Exhibition Hall 5: Seoul Photograph
Seoul’s Portrait from Four Perspectives
The Seoul Photography Exhibition features 105 photographs selected from among donations by photographers Kim Han-yong, Im In-sik, Han Yeong-su, and Hong Sun-tae. The photos spans the time of Korea’s independence to the 1970s, capturing scenes from a national ceremony in front of the main government building, laundry hung out to dry in the shantytown in Cheonggyecheon, people collecting ice at the Hangang River, residents enjoying the sun on the river’s sandy banks, and much more. The exhibition shows the old way of life in Seoul and how it has changed over the years.
Exhibition Hall Information
Special Exhibition Hall (1F)
This spacious hall offers various exhibitions on the history and culture of Seoul and hosts other exhibitions by contributing organizations and artists.
Exhibition Hall of Donated Collections (1F)
Displays donated collections
Permanent Exhibition Hall (3F)
Divided into 4 sections; Seoul, the Capital of Joseon, People's Life in Seoul, Culture of Seoul, and Development of the Seoul City.
History and Culture Class for Foreigners
The Seoul Museum of History provides overseas museum goers visiting Korea with opportunities to learn more about the history and culture of Seoul through exhibitions and experience-focused activities.
Title : “Seoul in the Past, and Landmarks of the City”
Participants : Groups of foreigners staying in Korea
Number of Participants : 30-50 for each lecture
Venue : Education and Exhibition Halls in the Seoul Museum of History
Application : Via fax or e-mail after a telephone inquiry
Telephone : 02-724-0194
Fax : 02-724-0195
E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
Qualification for Application
Priority will be given to the organizations that can effectively manage their participants in the lectures.
There will be no interpretation service during the lecture.
Successful applicants are required to send to the museum the application form and a list of participants at least one week prior to the lecture.
Admission / Participation Fees
Free (Separate charges may apply for some special exhibitions)
Foreign Language Intepretation Services
Audio Guide free rental available (Information Desk, 1F)
Available languages: English, Japanese, Chinese
Hours: 10:00-19:00 (rental: 10:00-17:00)