An Ancient Korean Kingdom Glitters


There are two weeks left to see a striking exhibit of elaborately crafted gold and other items from Korea’s little-known ancient kingdom, Silla. This is the first time many of the items were sent out of Korea, and the special exhibit, which opened last November at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will not go on tour in the U.S. or elsewhere. The precious works will be returning to Korea.

The kingdom of Silla ruled Korea from 57 B.C. – A.D. 935. The exhibit focuses on the period when it flourished:  from the fourth to the sixth centuries, spanning both the pre-Buddhist and early Buddhist eras. During its peak, there was extensive trade with China and Eastern Europe, and the kingdom was ruled by many queens.

The exhibit has been a draw for Korean visitors, for whom it is a source of pride. For non-Koreans, the exhibit is an introduction to a fascinating culture that evolved from using gold for ornamentation such as earrings and crowns to forging the precious metal into Buddhist figures for worship.

Visitors to the exhibit first see a widescreen video of Hwangnam Daechong, a large grave of a king and a queen, then move through the exhibit, which provides a chronological narrative of the kingdom.

EnterSoyoung Lee, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arranged the Silla exhibit with the National Museum of Korea. (Photo by Jiwon Choi)

Before reaching the Silla exhibit, however, visitors must pass through halls with works from ancient Greece and Rome. The video of the Silla exhibit, visible from those halls, provides a window into the ancient Asian culture, notes Soyoung Lee, associate curator for the department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum, who curated the Silla exhibit.

Lee notes that the exhibition attracts people using digital media such as a widescreen video and an interactive touch screen.

“I think it’s working. Passing by ancient Rome and Greece, audiences finally reach Korea’s golden kingdom, Silla, fascinated by the liveliness of a video of Hwangnam Daechong,” she said.

The exhibition consists of three main parts: Silla before Buddhism was flourishing, Silla as a global kingdom in Eurasia, and Silla under Buddhism.

A golden crown, ceremonial hats and gold earrings show the work of the early Silla craftsmen.

Says Lee: “You can find the golden ornaments which show the power of women of the time from the mountain-like tomb, Hwangnam Daechong. With the advanced digital media, audiences look closely at the construction process of the tomb and details of the ornaments.”

The exhibition also offers a new view of the Eurasian continent in the fifth century.

“Interestingly, the exhibits in the second part are not originally from Silla,” Lee notes. “The statue of a westerner, the Eastern European-style sword, the Roman glass, and ceramic bowls from China indicate that Silla had brisk cultural exchange and was a part of Eurasian countries.”

Ceramic tiles from Gyeongju National Park in Anapji in southern Korea are set the way they were in the park and slates for roofing are leaning against the wall.

“It feels as if you were in Gyeongju as you enter the hallway with a picture of Anap Pond hanging on the wall.”

The highlight of the exhibit is the gold and bronze Bodhisattva in a pensive pose, which is called “Mireuk” in Korean. Since it’s one of the most important national treasures of Korea, there was controversy about permitting the statue to leave Korea for the exhibit. “Despite the difficulty, it’s finally here to show everyone in New York the delicacy and beauty of Korean culture,” says curator Lee.

This is its second time to be displayed in New York after a 1970s exhibition entitled “5000 Years of Korean Art.” Koreans who visited the previous exhibition said that the Bodhisattva’s return reminds them of their early days in the U.S. and they feel proud of Korea.

Sixty percent of visitors from Korea to the Metropolitan Museum of Art have come to the museum for the exhibition. There has been a favorable reception not only from Korean visitors but also from non-Koreans. A trove of beautiful treasures, complemented by high-tech media, has demonstrated the beauty and culture of the ancient Asian civilization of Silla to thousands of visitors.

“Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom” continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until February 23.


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