Former Seoul Supreme Court Building

Brief Introduction

The Japanese built the original building to serve as a tribunal during the Japanese colonial era [4]. After the liberation of Korea in 1945, it was used as the Supreme Court of South Korea and it is now used as the Seoul Museum of Art (ibid). Because of this strict and dark connection to the ruling on people’s execution, its story could denote how people perceive Japanese judicial, governmental buildings. To shed its negative image, Seoul Metropolitan City installed an art gallery, and it has now become a popular cultural facility for residents of Seoul. Thus, it is worth reflecting on how this place has been perceived differently in different periods.

Figure 1.  Seoul Museum of Art (Source: https://www.cha.go.kr/main.html)

Why is this building contentious?

This place was the site of the Pyeongniwon平理院 (also known as Hanseong Court漢城裁判所), a Supreme Court from May 1899 to December 1907, when the Daehan Empire lost its judicial power in the process of annexation by the Japanese government (Park, 1996). The Japanese colonial government constructed Gyeongseong Court (Figure 2) in 1928 on the same site. After the liberation of Korea in 1945, this building was used as the Supreme Court of South Korea until 1995, when the Supreme Court was relocated to Sechodong [5]. This place and the building were the centre of the judicial power of the Japanese colonial government and South Korean government until 1995.

Figure 2. Gyeongseong Court
(Source: http://contents.history.go.kr/mphoto/1920/1920_period03_01.do)

As a result of the Supreme Court’s relocation, the building is now home to the Seoul Museum of Art. Before the art museum opened, the building was renovated. The museum’s porch is well preserved and designates the symbolism of the ‘former Supreme Court Building’, which is said to have architectural and historical values [5]. As a result, the porch was listed as National Registered Cultural Heritage no. 237 in 2006.

A Symbol of Domination and Authority

This place had been inextricably associated with judicial agencies throughout history: it was the Hanseong Court of the Daehan Empire (1899–1907), the Gyeongseong Court of the Japanese colonial government (1928–1945), and the Supreme Court of South Korea (1945–1995). Gyeongseong Court was specially built to detain Korean nationalists and naturally had a sense of authoritative demeanour because the building was situated on a hill [5]. The Japanese Governor-General Saitō’s inscribed letters can be identified on the foundation stone, stating “rulings violating human rights were issued here during the colonial period and post-war authoritarian regimes” (Figure 3).

“定礎 昭和二年十一月 朝鮮總督子爵齋藤實 齋藤實”

Interpretation: 定礎 (Foundation) 昭和二年十一月 (November 1927) 朝鮮總督 (Japanese Governor-General of Korea) 子爵 (Viscount) 齋藤實 (Saitō, the name)

Source: Korean Cultural Heritage Administration (2000)

Note: Saitō was the third Japanese governor-general of Korea from 1919 to 1927 and again from 1929 to 1931

Figure 3. Stone Monument indicating Former Site of the Supreme Court (Source: Photographed by the author, 2021)

Negative Connotation of Deoksugung Stone Walkway

Figure 4. Spatial Image of Former Seoul Supreme Court with other sites (Source: The author made this picture using Google Earth, 2021).

After the liberation day from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, this building had been used as the Supreme Court of South Korea. Around this building, Seoul Metropolitan City launched the ‘Deoksugung stone walkway project’ (Figure 4) to raise awareness of nearby heritage sites: Deoksugung Palace, the Anglican Church of Korea, and Yangijae. Because of its beautiful trees and cafes, this stone walkway gained popularity amongst the local people.

Despite its fame as a popular dating spot, this walkway has a negative reputation because of an unfounded myth which says that if you have a date with your partner on this stone walkway, you will soon break up. This rumour comes from the former function of the Supreme Court of Korea because many married couples came to this place to have their divorces approved. This myth has come to be associated with the stone walkway (Kim, 2018).

Rebranded as a cultural space for the public: Seoul Museum of Art

In 1995, the Supreme Court of South Korea was moved to Seochodong, and this building was in desperate need of renovation because of its weakened structures. The interior and back of the building were renovated and the fourth floor was demolished (Figure 5) to preserve its original shape of Gyeongseong Court (Figure 2) except for the porch to serve the new role of Seoul Museum of Art (Ahn, 2013). The mixture between the former supreme court’s façade (porch) and the newly renovated building intends to give a sense of time travelling to harmonise the past and the present instead of removing its history as the centre of judicial power (Kim, 2002). Because of the structural integrity of the porch and symbolic meaning of disgrace due to its connection to the Japanese colonial era, this building was listed as a modern cultural heritage (Ahn, 2013).

Figure 5. The Supreme Court of South Korea in 1995 (Source: Kim, 2002)
Figure 6. The Front Part of Seoul Museum of Art.(Source: Korean Cultural Heritage Administration, 2000)
Figure 6. The Façade of Seoul Museum of Art (Source: Korean Cultural Heritage Administration, 2000)

Since 2005, the Seoul Museum of Art has played a central role in the formation of cultural streets in Jeongdong by developing and operating various programs: art education programs for children, teenagers, and adults, visiting art appreciation classes, and workshops for residents (Lee, 1998). In this way, the newly renovated building as the Seoul Museum of Art has fulfilled its primary purpose of meeting Seoul residents’ cultural need and increasing the understanding of art culture (ibid).

Timeline

1) Hanseong Court of Daehan empire (1899-1907)

2) Gyeongseong Court of Japanese colonial government (1928-1945)

3) The Supreme Court of South Korea (1945-1995)

4) Seoul Museum of Art (1995-the present (2021)

Implication

The significance of the Seoul Museum of Art is the transformation from the symbol of authority to an open cultural facility (Kim, 2002). Thanks to efforts to revamp the negative image of the previous history, it has been successfully transformed into a cultural centre of the area, Jeongdong, as the Seoul Museum of Art. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to ignore its dark past when it was used as a judicial court of the Japanese colonial government and the authoritarian regimes before the installation of the Seoul Museum of Art.

However, it is also true that there is still a perception that the image of ‘art’ is considered exclusive to the cultural elite. By coming up with appropriate outreach programmes, workshops, and art education related to the nearby school curriculum, the residents of Seoul could appreciate the Seoul Museum of Art more deeply.

I think the Seoul Museum Art is one of representative colonial heritages, which is differently remembered and experienced across generations. For example, this building could be reminiscent of Japanese colonial ruling for the older generations who experienced the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945). However, younger generations are likely to regard this building as a modern art gallery with great exhibitions and famous talks. Thus, I think it would be a good attempt to reveal its history through different periods and to develop a mutual understanding of different generations.

In (month) 2021, a staff member at Seoul Museum of Art was found dead. As reported by Park (2021), this person had been given too heavy a workload and is rumoured to have been bullied. Although this is beyond the scope of this website, the public perception of Seoul Museum of Art seems to be in tatters because of this incident with many criticisms directed at it for the way they handled the situation (ibid). Thus, the popularity of Seoul Museum of Art has lessened recently and may remain so for the foreseeable future.

Note: Through this link (https://sema.seoul.go.kr/), we can obtain the information of what Seoul Museum of Art currently exhibits, along with its art educational classes, academic publications, and artefacts.

© 2021 Minki Sung

 Footnotes

[1] Ahn, H.Y. (2013) ‘A Study on Restoration Value and Reconsideration of Modern Government Building in Jung-dong: Focused on Kyungsung Municipal Government Building and Kyungsung Court’, Journal of Digital Interaction Design, 12(2), pp. 71−85.

[2] Kim, H.J. (2018) ‘Restoration of all sections ‘Deoksu Palace Stonewall Road’…”Walk with your lover and you’ll break up. Where does the proverb come from?’, Maeil Business Newspaper, 9 December. Available at: https://www.mk.co.kr/news/society/view/2018/12/767889/ (Accessed: 8 April 2021).

[3] Kim, Y.S. (2002) ‘Seoul Museum of Art: Time Tunnel Where the Past, Present, and Future Coexist’. MARU, 3, pp. 77−89.

[4] Korean Association of Architectural History. (2006) Research into the Conservation and Utilization of Modern Cultural Heritage. Daejeon: Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea.

[5] Korean Cultural Heritage Administration. (2000) Seoul Former Supreme Court Building. Available at: http://www.heritage.go.kr/heri/cul/culSelectDetail.do?VdkVgwKey=79,02370000,11&pageNo=1_1_1_1 (Accessed: 6 April 2021).

[6] Lee, S.J. (1998) Seoul Metropolitan City Art Gallery. Available at: http://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Item/E0028022 (Accessed: 6 April 2021).

[7] Park, B.H. (1996) Pyeongliwen平理院. Encyclopedia of Korean Culture. Available at: http://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Index?contents_id=E0059889 (Accessed: 8 April 2021).

[8] Park, S.Y. (2021) ‘The death of a 20-year-old officer in charge of YouQuiz has sparked criticism on the Seoul Museum of Art’s social media’, OSEN, 9 February, Available at: https://url.kr/9kaxmt (Accessed: 28 April 2021).

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