National Museum of Asian Art Reveals Hidden Stories of Ancient Korean Architecture in New Exhibition


For the first time in the United States, visitors to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art can enjoy a remarkable group of roof-ridge ornaments that were fashionable in Korea more than 1,000 years ago. Called chimi in Korean, these monumental features crowned both ends of the main roof ridge of prominent buildings. In addition to protecting and embellishing building peaks, they were believed to ward off evil. These ornaments are featured in "Once Upon a Roof: Vanished Korean Architecture" opening at the museum May 21.

"This exhibition gives us the rare opportunity to showcase Asian architecture within the walls of the museum," said Chase F. Robinson, the museum's Dame Jillian Sackler Director. "Although focusing on just one aspect of traditional buildings, the exhibition helps visitors understand the materials, engineering and philosophy behind the East Asian tradition, through the lens of Korea. We are grateful to our colleagues at the National Museum of Korea for lending these impressive objects to us, allowing them to leave Korea for the first time."

As visitors experience the exhibition, they will learn why ceramic tile roofs are prominent elements of East Asian architecture: The kiln-fired interlocking pieces created a waterproof cover to protect less durable wooden materials that support and shape impressive structures like temple and palace halls. This construction practice, first developed in China, came to Korea in the fourth century. Across East Asia, similar building principles were used for both religious and secular structures.

The exhibition begins with an introduction to traditional Korean architecture, including materials and structural principles that contextualize roof elements within overall design. Ancient depictions of buildings along with a contemporary architectural model will help visitors understand the featured objects that were unearthed from the sites of temple and palace halls dating to the Three Kingdoms (Baekje) and Unified Silla periods more than 1,000 years ago.

"Although these tiles have survived, their buildings have not," said J. Keith Wilson, exhibition curator. "The displayed objects were found at archaeological sites. Recovered, repaired and restored, the examples shown in this exhibition illustrate the beauty, engineering and scale of a vanished architectural tradition."

As an extension of the exhibition, the National Museum of Asian Art will host the webinar "Ancient Korean Architecture in Context" July 26. Four scholars from Korea and the United States will participate in the webinar, which will focus on ancient Korean architecture and ceramic roof tiles dating to the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods. The webinar will also offer new insights into production techniques and conservation practices.

"Once Upon a Roof: Vanished Korean Architecture" will inaugurate a new suite of gallery spaces that will host temporary and long-term exhibitions. The first long-term exhibition to open will be "Ancient Yemen: Incense, Art, and Trade" June 25. In early 2023, "The Art of Knowing in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas" will open and complete the suite of galleries.

This exhibition is organized by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art and the National Museum of Korea and represents another collaborative project undertaken by the two museums. Support is provided by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea.

About the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art, are located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Committed to preserving, exhibiting and interpreting exemplary works of art, the museum houses exceptional collections of Asian art, with more than 45,000 objects dating from the Neolithic period to today. Renowned and iconic objects originate from China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, the ancient Near East and the Islamic world. The Freer Gallery of Art also holds a significant group of American works of art largely dating to the late 19th century. It boasts the world's largest collection of diverse works by James McNeill Whistler, including the famed Peacock Room. The National Museum of Asian Art is dedicated to increasing understanding of the arts of Asia through a broad portfolio of exhibitions, publications, conservation, research and education.

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