Metal as a Part of Life,
Metal Transformed into Works of Art
by Kim Dongwan Associate Curator, Cheongju National Museum
Metallurgy: Great Wisdom
May 31-August 28, 2022
Cheongju National Museum
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The Cheongju National Museum is hosting the special exhibition Metallurgy: Great Wisdom from May 31 to August 28, 2022 in cooperation with the Gimhae National Museum and the Samsung Foundation of Culture.
Based on the theme and exhibits of an exhibition of the same title held in October 2021 at the Ho-Am Art Museum, operated by the Samsung Foundation of Culture, the exhibition has been renewed and enriched by adding major metalcraft items from the National Museum of Korea, Cheongju National Museum, and Gimhae National Museum. It also includes 45 items from the Samsung Foundation of Culture, which rarely exhibits such diverse and numerous items outside its own museums. They cover a wide span in time up until the modern period, including four national treasures and one treasure. Featured in the exhibition are exquisite metalcraft treasures, ranging from ancient times to the works of contemporary artists, including four national treasures and three treasures: Korean-style bronze daggers and spearheads, a gold crown from Seobongchong (Auspicious Phoenix Tomb), gold earrings from Geumjochong (Gold Bird Tomb) in Yangsan, Censer with Silver-Inlaid Cloud and Dragon Design, and Buddhist Flagpole with Dragon Finial, and Cloud-shaped Gong with Cloud and Dragon Design.
Metallurgy refers to the processes of treating metal with fire and the results thereof. When metal appeared in human history, human life changed greatly. Using metal, humans changed society in many ways. And by adding their wisdom and sensibilities, people created works of art that would last forever. Metallurgy is also inextricably connected with metal culture, which is the brand identity of the Cheongju National Museum. This January, the museum reorganized its Permanent Exhibition Gallery around the metal culture theme and prepared this special exhibition accordingly.

Metallurgy: Great Wisdom consists of four parts. Part 1, “Nature: Symbols and Rituals,” features objects made of bronze, the first alloy ever made. Being an alloy, bronze is not a substance that can be obtained from nature; metallurgy hence arose out of human wisdom and efforts to overcome nature. On display are major bronze items from the prehistoric age, such as mirrors with fine patterns and Korean-style daggers swords. These bronze artifacts are meaningful as ritual tools symbolizing nature, the absolute entity, and the rulers who communicated with nature and their transcendental power. This part of the exhibition also explores the beginning of metallurgy on the Korean Peninsula and its development over the ages.

  • Korean-style Bronze Dagger and Spearheads Three Han States, Length: 32.2cm, Leeum Museum of Art, National Treasure
  • Gold Earrings Three Kingdoms period, Length: 9.4cm, Treasure
  • Incense Burner with Silver-inlaid Cloud and Dragon Design Goryeo Dynasty, Height: 38.1cm, Leeum Museum of Art, National Treasure

Part 2, “The King: Power and the State,” shows accessories and armor from the Three Kingdoms Period, made possible by radical development in metallurgy. The authority and glory of ancient states can be sensed in cultural artifacts such as gold crowns, gold earrings, gilt-bronze crowns, iron armor, and ring-pommel swords, which symbolize the power of the king or ruler. The material used, such as gold or gilt-bronze, signifies the status of the user. Some items even feature gold filigree work, exemplifying the highly sophisticated metalworking techniques of the time. In the development of ancient states, iron is a metal that played an important role. Iron tools increased productivity and laid the foundation for the country’s growth; they wielded wide influence as a trading product with neighboring countries and as a powerful weapon in war. The legacy of ancient states manifested through metallurgy makes up a great part of Korea’s metallurgy culture and shows the absolute importance of metallurgy in the distant past.

Part 2 The Kings: Power and the State
Gold Crown and Belt from Seobongchong Tomb Three Kingdoms, Height: 35.0cm(crown), Length: 120.0cm(belt), Treasure

Part 3 of the exhibition, “The Gods: Buddha and the Dharma,” exhibits Buddhist items such as sculptures of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, incense burners, and cloud-shaped gongs, used in Buddhist ceremonies and rites. The metallurgy of this era expresses the appearance of the Buddha or reflects the spread of the Buddhist dharma through the display of diverse ritual objects.
In Korean history, Buddhism has been not only a ruling ideology but a means for praying for one’s wishes and well-being and hence a resting place for the mind. Hence, Buddhist artworks made with religious faith and the finest materials and techniques represent the essence of the art and culture of their time. Within this Buddhist art tradition, a wonderfully diverse and advanced metallurgy tradition was formed and widely disseminated.

Part 3 The Gods: Buddha and the Dharma

Part 4, “Humanity: Life and Art,” shows how metal has been used in the objects of everyday life such as mirrors and tosu (rafter finial used to stop rainwater from seeping into the eaves), and also features the works of modern artists. Once produced for specific purposes and a particular class of people, metal crafts gradually became part of the daily lives of ordinary people. With the added touch of human sensibilities, metal craft items became works of art. The exhibits embody the wisdom and artistry of metallurgy that continues from past to present.

  • Flagpole with Dragon Finial Goryeo Dynasty, Height: 104.3cm, Leeum Museum of Art, National Treasure
  • Dragon-shaped Rafter Finial Goryeo Dynasty, Height: 30.5cm, Leeum Museum of Art, Treasure
Part 4 Humanity: Life and Art

Unfolding around the exhibition hall are various stories that arouse visitors’ interest and curiosity. Enticing prompts—“Find the duck hiding on the bronze sword!” “A mirror? But I can’t see my face.” “A gold crown? A gold crown!” “BTS? Gaya Generals!” “How was the iron Buddha made?” and “Tosu: Why is there a dragon on the roof?”—draw us into discovering the stories and meaning behind the exhibits and the objectives of the exhibition.
This special exhibition follows the story of metallurgy in Korea’s history and culture. Through metallurgy people created in metal symbols of the absolute power of being, the authority of rulers, and of religion and faith. The range of items gradually expanded to include household utensils, accessories, and construction elements. Metallurgy: Great Wisdom is an opportunity to explore the diverse range of sophisticated metal objects and artworks spanning past and present and think about what the people of yore tried to do achieve through metallurgy, and the kind of things that we are making now. The exhibition continues through the end of August at the Cheongju National Museum and then moves on to the Gimhae National Museum.