The Mesopotamian Gallery of the Permanent Exhibition Hall at the National Museum of Korea Presents the Exhibition Mesopotamia: Great Cultural Innovations, Selections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
○ Title: Mesopotamia: Great Cultural Innovations, Selections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
○ Period: July 22, 2022 – January 28, 2024
○ Venue: Mesopotamian Gallery at the World Art Gallery of the National Museum of Korea
○ Exhibits: 66 Items including Panel with Striding Lion
The National Museum of Korea (Director-General: YOON Sung Yong) has recently established the Mesopotamian Gallery within its Permanent Exhibition Hall and is presenting an exhibition entitled Mesopotamia: Great Cultural Innovations, Selections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This marks the first exhibition on Mesopotamian civilization to be hosted by a national museum in Korea. As the first long-term exhibition in Korea to showcase Mesopotamian cultural heritage, the exhibition was co-organized with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the United States, which possesses a world-class collection of Mesopotamian artifacts. The exhibition will run for a year and a half, from July 22, 2022 to January 28, 2024.
Mesopotamia: Great Cultural Innovations, Selections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the third special themed exhibition to be presented at the National Museum of Korea following the Egypt Gallery, which was in operation from 2019 to 2022, and the World Ceramics Gallery, which has been in operation since 2021. The new Mesopotamian Gallery was established in accordance with the museum’s annual management plan for its World Art Gallery to provide visitors with opportunities to explore cultures around the world in its Permanent Exhibition Hall.
Mesopotamia was the first civilization in human history to develop and apply a form of writing, which it used to pass down its accomplishments in philosophy and science to later generations. It provided a foundation for the development of human civilization and created a lasting impact, even on the contemporary world. However, it has not been subjected to the same level of attention as some other ancient civilizations, such as in Egypt, so its achievements have been less well-known. In this light, the exhibition introduces the major achievements of Mesopotamian civilization with a focus on script, seals, religion, and portraiture so that visitors can enjoy the exhibition without professional background knowledge.
The exhibition is comprised of three sections. The first, entitled “Cultural Innovation,” begins with the birth of cities. It presents a seal and a bowl that hint at Mesopotamia’s development of a hierarchical society headed by priests and government officials as labor became divided and goods were collected and redistributed through the temples. The invention of cuneiform writing was a definitive cultural innovation of the Mesopotamian people. The script was used to record details of trade and business transactions, develop abstract concepts, and systematically organize knowledge of the surrounding world. Cylindrical seals were also invented around the same time. The exhibition presents thirteen clay cuneiform tablets and eleven seals. In order to vividly convey the joys and sorrows of the ancient Mesopotamians that were densely recorded on these small clay tablets, a kiosk providing interpretations and explanations of each tablet has been installed. Also introduced in this section are the major deities, temple architecture, and ritual practices of the Mesopotamian world as represented by ritual items and images of gods. Constructing huge temples and the diverse artworks inside them was also a part of the cultural innovations of the Mesopotamians.
The second section, entitled “Art and Identity,” presents various works expressing individual identity. The abovementioned seals were carved with designs of the particular god worshipped by the seal owner along with inscriptions as a means to indicate identity. The accessories excavated from the Royal Tombs of Ur demonstrate how they were crafted with a careful selection of forms and materials, including imported materials of high value, in order to reflect the social status of the wearer or provide the deceased with strength upon reaching the underworld. Mesopotamian figurative sculptures are highly similar in appearance because their creators did not attempt to document individual characteristics but rather combined ideal attributes considered suitable to the status and achievements of the subject when creating human statues. The statues of the rulers Gudea and Ur-Namma have inscriptions carved into the body revealing whose likeness it is, demonstrating the complementary relationship between text and image. The Cuneiform Cylinder with Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II demonstrates that written records of the military and religious achievements of a ruler were as important as portraiture.
The third section, entitled “The Age of Empires,” presents art from the two major Mesopotamian empires, the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–612 BCE) and the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626–539 BCE). These two empires that emerged in the latter half of Mesopotamian civilization left a significant legacy as much from their artistic endeavors as their wars of conquest or advanced governance. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was renowned for the beautiful stone relief scultures adorning the interior of the palace. Among them, Foreign Groom in a Tributary Procession captures a scene from the time using sophisticated carving techniques, while others such as Assyrian Soldier Conducting Captives across the Water reveal the belief of the people of the time in sculpture’s power to represent reality. The Neo-Babylonian Empire took the region’s millennial brick-making tradition to a higher level in the construction of buildings in the capital city of Babylon that were marvels of the world at the time. Two Panels with Striding Lions that lined the Processional Way from the Ishtar Gate, the best-known architecture of ancient Mesopotamia, are displayed in this section. The exhibition ends with a display of decorative bricks that remind visitors how simple yet versatile bricks provided the foundation for all the achievements of Mesopotamian civilization.
The exhibition presents four videos that facilitate visitors’ understanding of the exhibits. In the first section is a video demonstrating how to make a modern impression of a cylinder seal (with one of the seals on display) and another about the seal with a detailed explanation provided by a Met curator. The second section features a video of stories about the Mesopotamian civilization shared by Dr. Kim Benzel, Curator in Charge of the Ancient Near Eastern Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which loaned the exhibits. In the video room, a huge cube-screen video on the worldview of Mesopotamian civilization and its artistic achievements welcomes visitors. The Mesopotamian people diligently recorded their stories in great detail on palm-sized clay tablets. Their stories are highly detailed and surprisingly similar to those of the people of the present and therefore easy to identify with despite the thousands of intervening years. At the end of the cube video are QR codes that leads to a story of joys and sorrows connecting visitors with a far distant fellow human.
This exhibition presenting the cultural heritage of ancient Mesopotamia, which can be difficult to encounter in person not only in Korea but anywhere in the world, will provide an opportunity to explore the cultural innovations, advanced technology, and profound thoughts left behind by the people of the Mesopotamian world, which established itself as a defining point in human history. Admission to the exhibition is free of charge.