The Gallery of Korea is the smallest of the 6 East Asian galleries at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), but it's well worth a visit.
The information placard that greets visitors at the entrance of the gallery has this to say:
The ROM is home to one of the finest collections of Korean artworks and cultural objects in the West. Highlights on display in this gallery include a comprehensive selection of ceramics from the 1st century BCE to modern times, Buddhist and Shamanist religious arts, Confucian literati arts, decorative arts in wood and metal, folk and genre paintings, and products of printing technology. The collection, as a whole, bears witness to the long history of Korea's material and visual culture.
I should add that the collections also include furniture and other domestic objects. There is one odd area of omission: clothing and textiles. Of course, it's possible that there are clothes and textiles in the collection which are not currently on display.
To help visitors make sense of the vast time span of the exhibited items, there is an explanatory set of timeline panels:
Koreaphiles might notice an odd bit of terminology here. I've never seen a historical period called 'Northern & Southern Dynasties' in a Korean museum, nor in any English-language history books about Korea. The ROM curators seem to be using it here as a convenient catch-all term to include both the Unified Shilla (668-935CE) and Balhae (698-926CE) kingdoms. If any readers can shed further light on this terminology, or provide other examples of its use, please comment.
The first section of the gallery is devoted to painting and calligraphy:
This display case particularly caught my eye because the 2 fan paintings are by Joseon-era artist Jeong Seon (1676-1759). A major figure in Korean art history, he was the founder of the true-view school of painting. Most of his extant works are in the Gansong Museum of Art, a private institution in Seoul that is only open for 2 short periods each year. Aficionados may have seen the Jeong Seon exhibit mounted by the Gansong at the Dondaemun Design Plaza in 2015. In any case, I was impressed by the presence of these works in the ROM.
This section also features a 10-panel folding screen from the later Joseon era:
The next section highlights furniture and domestic objects:
Most of the items in this section date from the later Joseon era, roughly contemporaneous with our Victorian era.
The anchor of the Gallery of Korea is the ceramics collection. It takes up the most space and offers the most comprehensive overview of items from every historical period.
The first display contains samples of ceramic work from pre-history to Goryeo (935-1392):
The second display case focuses on Buncheong, whiteware and porcelain from the Joseon period (1392-1910):
I was pleased to find that the third display case puts the spotlight on contemporary ceramic art:
Outside of specialist museums, it's not often that you see contemporary work displayed alongside traditional work.
One of the smallest sections is the one devoted to Korean Buddhist art:
It's located next to the section on metal arts:
The final section of the gallery is given over to printing technology and hangeul. It was here that I felt the biggest difference between this museum and museums in Korea. In a museum about Korean culture in Korea, hangeul, the Korean alphabet, would be highlighted prominently and extolled at length. At the ROM, there is just one little plaque about the origin and significance of hangeul, and just one example of printing in hangeul:
Much, much more is made of Korean printing technology. The posted information points out that Koreans were already doing woodblock printing as early as the 8th century, and invented moveable metal type in the 1200s.
While it's not enormous, I judge the ROM's Gallery of Korea to be a major repository of knowledge about Korea in Canada. I recommend it to everyone with a serious interest in Korea or Korean studies who may be visiting Toronto. If you go on a weekday -- the museum is open 7 days a week -- you will probably have the gallery more or less to yourself.
For more information, please consult the 'Visit Us' page on the ROM's website: https://www.rom.on.ca/en/visit-us
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