The National Museum of Korea (Director General, Bae Kidong) is pleased to present the special exhibition Fighting Epidemics in the Joseon Dynasty (May 11–June 21, 2020). This exhibition is being held to shed light on how the people of the time worked to overcome their fears of epidemics and to deliver a message of hope to a Korean society suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Section I. “Epidemics in Joseon” examines examples of epidemics that swept the Joseon Dynasty, stories of people who died in epidemics, and how people combatted their fear of them. Smallpox scars on the face of Kim Sang-ok in his portrait in the Album of Portraits of the Applicants who Passed the Special Military Examination from 1774 illustrate the spread of smallpox. The funeral ode written by Jeong Gyeong-se (1563–1633) to honor his son who died of the disease while working at the Bureau of Arts and Letters reveals the pains and sorrows of epidemics.
Section II. “Efforts to Combat Epidemics” presents countermeasures devised by the Joseon court and the work of physicians in the battle against epidemics. It features Map of Mujang-hyeon in Jeolla-do Province, which indicates the altars (yeodan) used to hold rituals to placate the spirit spreading epidemics; Sinchan byeogonbang (New Compilation of Medical Treatment of Various Infectious Disease) (Treasure No. 1087; Heo Jun Museum), a medical book written by Heo Jun upon the orders of the king and Jahyul jeonchik (Regulations on Aiding Abandoned Children or Child Beggars), a record of the emergency relief measures for children abandoned or orphaned following poor harvests and epidemics. These items reflect the thinking of the ruling class and highlight the importance of a benevolent government sharing the pain of the people as it sought to end epidemics. Moreover, medical books synthesizing theory and clinical practice for respective diseases demonstrate the continuing endeavors to medically combat epidemics throughout the Joseon Dynasty. These books include Duchang gyeongheombang (Treatment of Smallpox), Byeogon sinbang eonhae (New Medical Treatment of Various Infectious Disease with Annotations in Korean), Magwa hoetong (Comprehensive Study of Measles) (National Library of Korea), and Sijong tongpyeon (Comprehensive Volume on Smallpox and Inoculation).
Section III. “Faith and Taboo: for Cure” focuses on the efforts of the people of the time as they tried to conquer their fear of epidemics through faith. The painting Ritual Held to Repel the God of Smallpox embodies the wishes of Koreans of the past to cure deadly smallpox by placating the Smallpox God. This section also features a Daesin Grandmother painting (Gahoe Folk Painting Museum), which was thought to play a significant role in preventing the spread of unidentified epidemics, and a Stone Seated Bhaiṣajyaguru (Medicine) Buddha sculpture (Daegu National Museum), a figure that was believed to save people from national crises such as wars or epidemics.
Epidemics have inflicted repeated horrors, but can be viewed as inflection points in the history of humanity. It is hoped that this exhibition will offer an opportunity to appreciate the spirits of Koreans of the past who overcame the terrible epidemics. It invites us to think about what kinds of changes we will wish to make after the COVID-19 pandemic has been overcome.