The Past under the Shadow of the Present: The Case of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History

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The National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, which opened in 2012, has been the focus of a heated controversy between the progressive and conservative camps over the “proper” ways to represent South Korea’s turbulent history. I build on the relationship between heritage, collective memory and national identity, and argue that the division that typifies South Korean society has implications that extend beyond socio-political issues. Anchored within a broader discursive context, the museum became an important memory carrier involved in the process of debating the issue of national identity. Although no agreement has been reached regarding the “proper” historical narrative the site should exhibit, the museum has nevertheless offered an opportunity to shape a form of national identity that can embrace a more complex perspective on the country’s contemporary history. At present, though, this contentious site has demonstrated the extent to which the legacy of the conservative–progressive divide remains deep. I offer a discursive context that is useful for the study of current debates over heritage sites in South Korea, while the overall analysis illuminates the idea that the “present-centred” management of heritage in national museums can, potentially, play a part in the process of forming more intricate notions of national identity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)424-440
Number of pages17
JournalAsian Studies Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - 3 Jul 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Asian Studies Association of Australia.


  • National Museum of Korean Contemporary History
  • South Korea
  • South Korean progressives and conservatives
  • collective memory
  • heritage
  • museum
  • national identity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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