Gyeongju museum chief puts tomb relics in the limelight

GYEONGJU, North Gyeongsang Province ― Yi Young-hoon, director of Gyeongju National Museum, is one of the few who breathe fresh air into the otherwise dull local museum scene.

Through a series of exhibits on royal tombs of the ancient kingdom of Silla, he brought to the spotlight a slew of long-forgotten relics from the backroom of the museum.

“Rediscovery of relics from our own storage rooms is what I emphasize to most to my staff here,” Yi said at his office in the museum last week. “The concept that runs through the exhibitions is to show as many (relics) as possible,” he said.

“It’s been nearly four decades since Silla’s royal tombs have been excavated, so I think it might be good to hold exhibitions that show everything about them. It could serve as a chance to revive the interest of the general public, as well as the academia, in these tombs,” he added. 

Yi Young-hoon

Gyeongju National Museum houses over 100,000 relics unearthed at numerous historic sites in the city, which served as the capital of the Silla Kingdom (B.C. 57-A.D. 935).

The first in a series of royal tomb exhibits in 2010, which dealt with the theme of Hwangnam Daechong (Great Tomb of Hwangnam), was a phenomenal success. The largest Silla tomb, when excavated in 1973, yielded a whopping 58,000 antiquities, including stunning gold regalia.

Instead of showcasing just a handful of items that hold high historical significance, Yi decided to bring out as many as 52,000 items from its storage rooms and display them the way they were first found inside the tomb, to enable visitors to sense the tomb’s magnificence. Over 120,000 visitors, a record number for the museum, came to see the show.

A third exhibit is currently underway under the theme of “Cheonmachong, the Royal Tomb of Silla.” A total of 1,600 items, including 11 national treasures, are on display. It is again nearly everything in exhibitable condition that was unearthed from Cheonmachong (Tomb of Heavenly Horse). Many have never been publicly displayed before.

Having opened in March and running until June 22, the show is cruising to set another milestone in the history of the museum.

On the second day of the May 3-6 long weekend, more than 34,000 flocked to the exhibition, hitting a new daily visitor record for the museum. For the four days of the extended weekend, the museum saw a total of 86,721 visitors.

The success of the show surprised Yi, who has been at the helm for seven years now.

“I was very tense and edgy that day because of safety concerns,” he said. “Getting 34,000 visitors in a single day was just unthinkable. It surpassed our past record (around 24,000 visitors in 2002) by nearly 10,000.”

Worries aside, the spike in visitor numbers attests to the public interest in our history, he said.

“It’s important for museums like us to preserve relics well and lead research on them. But what’s equally important is to share the treasures with the public at an appropriate time and manner,” he said.

The fourth exhibition in the Silla tomb series will be on Geumgwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb), to be held as early as next year, he said.

The tomb was discovered in 1921 when Korea was occupied by the Japanese colonial rulers and excavated by a group of Japanese with little knowledge of archeology. It took just four days to be unearthed.

“We’ll look into our collection of relics from Geumgwanchong, approaching them from the zero basis, as if we’re writing the excavation report,” he said. The museum, along with the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, is also planning a new excavation on the site, he added.

By Lee Sun-young (