Telling the Hidden Stories of
Ancient Korean Architecture
by Yang Sumi Associate Curator of the Exhibition Division, National Museum of Korea
Once Upon a Roof: Vanished Korean Architecture
May 21 - October 30, 2022
Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art

The National Museum of Korea (NMK) holds an overseas exhibition of Korean cultural heritage every year to promote the history and culture of the country.
In 2021, two special exhibitions were opened under this program: Korea – Gateway to a Rich Past at the Princesshof National Museum of Ceramics in the Netherlands, and Text Cultures and the Art of Writing – Fascination with Characters at the Museum of Asian Art at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, Germany. Likewise, this year two exhibitions on ancient Korean architecture and Korean ceramics have been opened in the United States and Columbia, respectively.

Once Upon a Roof: Vanished Korean Architecture is a special exhibition organized by the NMK and the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, running from May 21 to October 30, 2022, in Washington, D.C. It is the first exhibition in the United States to show the special ornamental roof tile chimi, utilizing it as a vehicle for exploration of Korean traditional architecture. In addition to chimi, the exhibition features 20 items from ancient Korean buildings such as tiles decorated with landscape designs and round roof-end tiles (sumaksae) from the collections of the NMK, Gyeongju National Museum, Buyeo National Museum, and Iksan National Museum.

Exhibition Poster
Exhibition space
  • Brick with Landscape Design Baekje Kingdom, Temple site in Oe-ri, Buyeo, Height: 29.3cm, National Museum of Korea
  • Brick with Dragon Design Unified Silla Kingdom, Jungsan-dong, Ulsan, Gyeongju National Museum

The result of extended cooperation between the NMK and the Smithsonian, Once Upon a Roof is the second joint exhibition by the two institutions, following Sacred Dedication: A Korean Buddhist Masterpiece held in 2019. In planning the exhibition, from the theme to contents, much is owed to the exhibition Chimi, Ridge-end Roof Tile held at the Buyeo National Museum in 2018. Once Upon a Roof is a rare opportunity to explore Korea’s ancient architectural culture within the confines of a museum. Although it focuses on only one aspect of ancient architecture, it has been designed to help visitors understand the materials, techniques and philosophy of Korean architectural tradition.

Chimi and Stories of an Architecture Long Gone

The chimi is a large tile adorning either end of the main roof ridge of important buildings found at royal palaces and temples. A special ornamental roof tile, it has the practical function of firmly fixing both ends of the roof ridge while enhancing the beauty and dignity of the building and symbolizing good fortune and repelling evil. Originating in China, chimi were introduced to Korea around the fourth century and continued to be an important element of wooden buildings from the Three Kingdoms period through the Unified Silla and Goryeo periods.
The exhibition introduces chimi excavated from the site of Mireuksa Temple, the great royal temple of Baekje; from the temple site of Baekje’s Busosanseong Fortress; and from Wolji Pond dating to the Unified Silla period. These tiles give us an idea of the beauty, construction methods and scale involved in ancient Korean architecture that no longer exists today. In addition to actual tile artifacts, the exhibition features models of Baekje buildings, where chimi were first used, and other fascinating explanatory materials and videos on production methods, the history of Mireuksa Temple, and stories of recent archaeological discoveries.

  • Chimi Baekje Kingdom, Temple site at Mt. Busosan, Buyeo, Height: 91.4cm, Buyeo National Museum
  • Chimi Baekje Kingdom, Mireuksa Temple Site, Iksan, Height: 99cm, Iksan National Museum
Exhibition space
Exhibition graphic-Name of building components

Academic Events for Diverse Audiences

As part of the exhibition, an online conference titled “Ancient Korean Architecture in Context” was held July 26. Researchers from the NMK and American scholars participated in the event to discuss Korea’s ancient architecture and roof tiles dating to the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods. A new perspective on the production techniques and conservation treatment of chimi was presented at the conference.
In September, an online public lecture is also planned to introduce archaeological sites and the items excavated moving back and forth from Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond in Gyeongju and Wolji Gallery at the Gyeongju National Museum.
Once Upon a Roof will hopefully be a special opportunity for visitors from around the world to take an interest in the unfamiliar subject of Korean traditional architecture.

Exhibition space