DO YOU know that you do not need to travel to the Seoul Museum of Art or the D Museum for an eye-opening exhibition if you are a Yonsei student? Although many students regularly visit the Centennial Hall for musical concerts, only a few are aware of the Yonsei Museum that is housed in the same building. Emblazoned with national treasure, a prestigious collection of prehistoric relics, the Lee Han-yeol Memorial, and 12 zodiac animals crafted in white jade, the Yonsei Museum offers a fulfilling experience for museum-lovers.
As Korea’s first institution to unearth the peninsula’s prehistoric relics in 1964, the Yonsei Museum is highly regarded as a reputable source in archaeological studies. The museum began its history at the end of the 1920’s with a mission to “continue a civil preservation of history*” and strengthen academic research within university education. The Yonsei Museum has the proud title of being the first university museum to be established in Korea; it is continually referenced as a key source since the successful prehistoric excavation of Seokjang-ri* in the archeological site of Gongju. As a testimony of its research history, the second floor’s Prehistory and History Rooms exhibit fossilized animal bones, stones, pottery, and jewelry from the Paleolithic Era, Neolithic Era, and the Bronze Age. On the third floor, visitors may find a collection of Silla pottery and pieces donated by various alumni, including the Horace Underwood family. However, these striking collections reflect just the tip of the iceberg.
The first space that a wandering visitor will step foot into is the Art Room, a magnificent wood-tone space that displays significant paintings. However, from last year, the Art Room has been occupied by a special themed exhibition from Son Bo-ki’s donations. Son Bo-ki is a late history professor of Yonsei University and is better known as the father of Korean archeological studies.
The special exhibition, which will continue until the end of June, is an entire collection of Professor Son’s private artifacts that were accumulated during his lifetime. This collection stands as the living proof for the Japanese colonial period that was experienced and engraved in the donator’s blood. It includes a tattered Korean flag that had been used during the March First Movement, a hand-written first edition of Introduction to Oriental Studies co-written by Son and a professor of history from Chosun Christian College (original name for Yonsei University), as well as pages of private letters from the Chosun Dynasty.
The most significant artifact of the exhibition is situated on the opposite wall of the entrance: the very first edition of the Sam-guk Yu-sa (The Heritage of the Three States), written by Il-yeon monk during the Koryo Dynasty. This was the first occasion where the missing volumes of the Samguk Yusa’s first two chapters had ever appeared in public. Professor Son decided to donate his most cherished possession to the Yonsei Museum in hopes that the university’s current scholars and young pupils would continue the legacy of archaeological and historical studies which he had begun more than 50 years ago. The fate and legacy of the Yonsei Museum is now in the hands of the current students, who must recognize the value of his or her heritage and to accept the weight of history as our preceding ancestors did.
While the museum’s field of specialization is its nation-wide artifact excavation, it is also the first place where wandering visitors explore to learn about our university’s historical footsteps. Situated on the second floor, and closest to the center of the building, is a room dedicated to the history of Yonsei University. At initial glance, the room seems small in size; however, the number of timeworn artifacts and their depth of history are truly astonishing. Starting from the left to right, the exhibition is organized in chronological order under five big sections—“The Founders of Yonsei”, “The Light of Yonsei”, “The Challenge of Yonsei”, “Fountain of Truth, Fire of Freedom”, and “The Hall of Youth Spirit.” In the center of the room, there are also display cases that tell their own tale in relation to the school’s foundational steps.
“The Founders of Yonsei” briefly presents the five main creators (Horace Newton Allen, Horace Grant Underwood, Oliver R. Avison, Louis Henry Severance, and John Thomas Underwood) of the university on separate wall banners. Below are showcases which display a few of the founders’ valuable items such as, the book Things Korean written by Allen and the script of Avison’s commencement speech in 1928. Despite its inscription from nearly a century ago, the commencement speech overlaps with the present-day society where university prestige no longer assures your future and success. An example is the extract, “Just how much their education has done for them will be made manifest by what they do.” The value of a Yonsei student lies beyond the education received, and rather, on what is achieved from it. As Avison stresses, “progress should be our aim and watchword”.
“The Light of Yonsei” and “Fountain of Truth, Fire of Freedom” explains the role Yonsei had in laying the foundation of education and Christianity in Korea. Not only was Yonsei the center for education, but it was also a core place for the independence movement and the study of democracy in Korea. As well as acquiring knowledge, students were connected by the core values of justice and freedom. This determination is reflected on the faces of the first graduates of Gwanghyewon*** in 1908. Their proud and oddly stern expressions call for attention and lead you to ponder on what they were thinking about and what kind of responsibilities they would have felt.
“The Challenge of Yonsei” further describes the process in how two separate educational institutions, Severance and Yeonhui College, were merged into one—Yonsei University. Through the turmoil of the Korea-Japan and South-North Korean war, Yonsei endured and was able to expand and develop into one of the most prestigious universities in Korea, with beautiful campuses, accomplished alumni, and exceptional student body. Greater things come with cooperation and Yonsei has celebrated this tradition for over a century.
In the middle of the room are showcases of a love story between Kim Joo-hang (David) and Agnes Davis Kim. Notable for being the first interracially wedded couple in Korea, David and Agnes devoted their lives for the peace and prosperity of others. In particular, Agnes’s earnest love for the people and country of Korea is shocking and greatly honorable. Agnes wrote and taught foreign students in a completely foreign country and never faltered. What could have been the reason for her earnest efforts? We may never know, but her courage and abilities are truly admirable.
At the very end of the exhibition is the “The Hall of Youth Spirit” that proudly presents the path previous Yonsei students have chosen to tread—acquiring knowledge, fighting for justice, and caring for others. A wide collection of objects represents Yonsei’s unique culture such as the Yon-Ko athletic games to the tragic death of Lee Han-yeol, a Yonsei student who gave his life while protesting in the June Democracy Movement**** of 1987. Referred to as a democratic martyr, the image of Lee collapsing into the arms of his friend while yelling “End the dictatorship!” was and still is one of the strongest symbol of democracy in present day South Korea. Over 1.6 million citizens attended Lee’s funeral and thus, the photograph of this funeral in front of the gates of Yonsei is particularly attention-grabbing. With myriads of people participating for the betterment of the nation, let alone the university, the image clasps a pivotal moment that demonstrates the Yonsei spirit. The photograph will be perfect for those looking to immerse themselves in Yonsei pride and spirit.
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The Yonsei Museum is an archive of our university’s history and scholarly integrity from its earliest days of formation. Whether students visit the museum as a learning opportunity to study prehistoric relics or just to spend quiet time away from the stress of classrooms, the Yonsei Museum provides an absorbing moment with irreplaceable charm. The Yonsei Annals and the dedicated curators of the Yonsei Museum warmly invite all students to get lost in time at the Yonsei Museum.
**Seokjang-ri: The first Paliolithic Era artifact to be discovered in South Korea
***Gwanghyewon: The first hospital in South Korea to practice western medicine
****June Democracy Movement: A democratic movement in South Korea that led to many mass protests (from June 10, to June 29, 1987)