My favourite part of the entire trip was the visit to the Korea Furniture Museum. I hadn’t been told what to expect, except of course that there was furniture, so I was blown away by the beauty of the place. The museum is based in a real traditional hanok or korean house, which used to be used as a holiday home for the royal family. The woman who gave us a tour explained the meanings behind the use of certain materials, and symbols, and allowed us a brief glimpse into what life might have been like by letting us into one of the furnished rooms.
First thing we saw was the outer walls, and a giant wooden door, which creaked when it opened. When I saw inside, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the place, and I couldn’t believe that something like this was hidden away on the side of a mountain like this. We had come on a day with perfect weather, so the photos we took turned out lovely.
We weren’t allowed to take photos of the interior, as it is a private collection and they want to keep it exclusive. Also the tour was so fast paced that we couldn’t stop to draw anything, which was slightly disappointing, but I loved it all anyway.
Outside, we were shown the main parts of the house, including the courtyard- laid with a kind of gravel which acted as a security system because it was noisy to walk on- and the chimney, which was decorated with symbols of longevity. The archway made of stone was also a symbol of longevity, a common theme in Korean Lifestyle, and we were told that by passing through it we had become ten years younger- she would normally say twenty years, but we were younger than her usual guests.
We took some group photos in front of the main building.
Afterwards, we were taken around the museum part of the establishment, which was more like what you would expect from a museum: objects sorted into different categories and displayed in an area which you can’t touch. There was a tiny palanquin, which surprised us, but the tour guide assured us that it was actual size. Since people all over the world have become taller in recent generations, it would have fit a five foot man inside fairly easily.
The tour guide went through a great deal of detail with the types of wood and why they were used. For example, a father would plant a persimmon tree when a daughter was born, and then when she was old enough to marry, the tree would be cut down and used to build her some furniture to move away with. Another was a tree which had an interesting pattern, due to a disease, which was popular for decorative panelling since it was a visual representation of its vigour and passion for life.
Butterflies were a masculine symbol, and flowers represented femininity: this is because butterflies chase flowers. A circle means heaven, and a square means earth. The man of the house would choose one of these symbols, along with a type of wood that he liked, and almost the entire house would be furnished accordingly with his tastes. Furthermore, in his room there would be a chest of drawers which would have an image or piece of writing on, which he would create himself, so he would have to carefully choose what he wanted, as it would be unable to change later on in his life.
There were a great deal of cabinets and chests of drawers, with cleverly designed doors which slid open, and out, or were hidden away, such as with the medicine cabinet: we were asked to point to where we thought the most poisonous herbs were kept, and all of us pointed to the top, but she then opened the bottom and made us look inside, where there was a concealed, inset group of cubbyholes, where they poisons were kept out of sight of children for safety.
Korean furniture was made with a certain technique that required no nails or glue; everything interlocked perfectly. This technique was also what was used to create the houses, so furniture was sometimes referred to as ‘small houses’.
Tables, which were small and round, usually, were also intricately decorated. They also have open windows, which most people assume to just be part of the decorative design, but are functional as well: these tables were carried by servants on their head, and they needed to be able to see where they were going!
We were taken into some of the inside parts of the house itself, and asked to remove our shoes as that would provide us a more authentic experience. We went into the queen’s chambers, and were shown how she might have lived- since she was not allowed to leave the palace, the king would have given her the most luxurious, and lavishly decorated space. He would have picked a beautiful view, and built the rest of the house around a window which showed that view, allowing the house to flow with the landscape.
All of the furniture was designed to be harmonious, and was built to match up exactly with the width and height of the window or door, which was all lower-set than in western houses, as they would have spent most of their time seated.
She showed us the many ways that koreans had devised to beat the awful heat in summer, including having a bed raised off the floor with slats to let the cool air through, and a wicker shaped tube, called ‘the wicker wife’ which men in particular would hug at night, and let more cool air circulate. The bed also doubled as a warmer option in winter, as it was close enough to the floor to benefit from the underfloor heating, or ondol.
Overall I enjoyed the experience thoroughly, and although it was expensive (20,000 won, which is about £15-16) I would happily pay it again to go back and experience everything again.