As a long-time k-pop lover, I was instantly intrigued when I saw a sign indicating the entrance to the K-Pop Museum.
It was a perfect place to visit on a cloudy jangma (장마) day, during the rainy season, in Gyeongju (경주). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but k-pop has had such a major influence in my life, I couldn’t wait to see what the museum had to offer.
In the entrance, you are greeted by the sculpture entitled “Anthology”, which is made of guitars signed by Korean rock stars and heavy metal stars. The museum follows the development of Korean music from traditional songs, to enka and trot, then to Korean pop, rap, and indie music.
It’s so fascinating to see how history has influenced the development of music, and how music can give us insight into the mentality of different generations. War and political turmoil have shaped the ideology and tone of Korean music, often pushing forward the technologies to manufacture and distribute it.
For example, music during the Japanese occupation aimed to comfort the people and preserve the beauty of Korean culture, while music during the Pacific War was focused almost solely on military victory. Following the Korean War, the entertainment of American soldiers allowed new entertainers to take the stage, while introducing fast-paced dance music as well as foreign pop.
From 1975 to the mid-80s, Korean music albums were required to include a “soundness song” as the final track, which promoted the political control of the dictatorship, attempting to highlight the benefits of life under the military government. The “Soundness Songs” capture the essence of life in that era in a very distinct way, and can be listened to at the museum as well as on the museum’s website. In the 70s and 80s, as youth culture took power in popular culture, Korean pop overcame government restrictions, and the 90s truly paved the way for the idols we know and love today.
The museum has a collection of records from across eras and genres that you can sample, as well as costumes worn by legendary Korean singers throughout history. Copies of the First Korean OST, “Fallen Blossoms on a Stream”, are on display.
OSTs (Original Sound Tracks), produced most often for dramas, have gained increasing popularity in Korean music. For example, “Stay With Me”, from the drama “Goblin: The Lonely and Great God”, became very popular in mainstream music.
The museum’s collection of K-pop memorabilia and autographed albums is very impressive, featuring 500 contemporary albums. It’s really fun to find your favorite artists and some new ones to try!
One of the most unique exhibitions here is the 100 Greatest Korean Pop Music Albums, a project initiated by Gaseum Network (now Popular Music Sound Lab). The rankings are based on the recommendation list of 52 pop music experts and the decisions of 15 consultants from the K-Pop Museum Committee. Including music released in the 70s and beyond, the top 100 albums were announced on Kyunghang Shinmun in 2008. The museum does not disclose the album rankings, but instead displays them in order of release. They include the first and second editions, LP and CD versions, and cassette tape versions.
There museum includes an exhibition which features memorabilia and artifacts of Korean legends such as Jang Mihwa, Hyeon Suk, Lee Hyeon, Jang Ukjo, Guitarist Kim Dogyun of Band Baekdusan, Guitarist Kim Taeyoung of Band Boohwal, and Han Daesu.
One of my personal favorite displays was the one highlighting the career of Lee Geumhee, the first Korean dance singer.
Also known as ‘Miss Dynamite’, Lee was renowned for her full and rich voice, exhibited in classics such as ‘Long-Legged Mr.Kim”. This hit song was actually banned from being broadcast for a year, supposedly due to the short stature of President Park Jeonghee. In 1963, she became very popular in the US army show, often performing ten or more encores after her concerts. In 1964, she founded the sister duet the ‘Lee Sisters’, and was declared one of Korea’s Top Ten Singers by MBC in 1966. She received the monthly Arirang Eagle Award Special Popularity award twice throughout her career. Korea Weekly awarded her as ‘Best Singer’ in 1966, and she even formed Korea’s first fan club. Lee is quoted as saying, “I could not accumulate money due to the greed for stage costumes, though I earned a large income.” Several of these decadent costumes are on display in the museum.
Another Korean icon recognized in the museum is Nam Jin, sometimes known as the “Korean Elvis Presley”, who made his debut in 1965 with ‘Seoul Playboy’. His extreme popularity can be seen in his receiving of the grand prize for male singer at the 13th Korea Folk Songs Awards in 2014, 49 years after his debut. In 2008, he was elected as first chair of the Korea Singers Association, and in 2015, a movie entitled ‘International Market’ was made about Nam’s career, starring TVXQ’s U-know (Yunho) as Nam. The museum has several of Nam’s stage costumes as well as a guitar autographed by this legend.
The museum also temporarily featured a costume from the musical ‘Peter Pan’ worn by Yoon Bokhee, LP records from Kim Bada of Band Sinawe, and the outfit that Kang Wonrae, of dance music duo Clon, was wearing at the moment of his devastating motorcycle accident in 2000, which left him a paraplegic.
The audio-visual room features vintage audio equipment, 45,000 LP Records and 19,000 CDs, a vintage projector, and a 180 inch framed screen. There are special shows in this room at various times, such as “The History of K-Pop”, and throughout the day you can listen to a variety of LP records. There is also an exhibition describing the history and process of manufacting LP records, which were introduced to Korea in the 1950s.
Korean pop music has been shaped by the social and political environment of different eras, holding through many times of slowed development and even stagnation. It has deep roots within Korean culture, allowing it to grow and evolve while staying true to its origins. In my life, K-pop has allowed me to explore the beauty of the culture and truly find what I’m passionate about. It has opened new friendships and experiences to me, so learning about the origins of this culture was really special.
XOXO, Seoulmate ♥