The Exhibition of the “Concept City”: The Kyŏngbok Palace Exhibition of 1915

The kisaeng, with her outstretched hand, welcomed the visitors to Kyŏngbok Palace Colonial Industry Exhibition with the promise of entertainment, her vibrant dress and painted face the hallmark of an “ancient Korea”.[1] This “ancient past” formed a mirage in front of the visitors’ eyes, only to be interrupted by the dominant Japanese-built structures of the Machine Building and Special Forestry Building which offered up facts, statistics, and mechanical solutions to Korea’s progression into modernity. This was Michel De Certeau’s “concept city” in miniaturised form- the Japanese Government-General’s imaginative vision of Korea rendered into consumable and attractive exhibits whose attached discourse dismissed history in favour of the future.[2]

The 1915 Colonial Industry Exhibition was created with the purpose of spreading the ideology of progress and modernity on behalf of the Japanese Government-General. It included Korean and Japanese exhibitions ranging from sumo wrestling to agricultural and factory technologies. The intentions of the Exhibition were later summarised in the illustrated government publication Chōsen of Today, (1930).[3] The brochure aimed to highlight the agricultural, industrial, and cultural achievements of the colonial government. As De Certeau would suggest, it formed part of the imagined “spatial story” of Korean modernity in which technological progression was asserted through a linguistic narrative that dictated the public’s reaction to the exhibition.[4] The publication states that the Keijo Museum “preserved many treasures”.[5] This language suggests that the Korean displays belonged to a distinct historical past. In the exhibition, shamanic rituals and non-mechanical agricultural technologies were deliberately exoticized to create a sense of displacement because of their physical location next to statistical posters and mechanised technologies such as the rice-polisher.[6] This suggests that the Korean exhibits, or “treasures”, were valued for their juxtaposition with colonial exhibits and contributed to the artificial construction of Korean space and time. By suggesting that Korean culture belonged to an ancient and intangible past, the exhibition involved the temporal-spatial reconstruction of Korea’s historical timeline in order to bring the ‘new era’ of Japanese coloniality to the forefront. In doing so, the very space of the exhibition became an immersive lesson in the Government-General’s ability to immediately propel colonial Korea into modernity.

The concept of space-time reconstruction which pervades the Chōsen Today publication, as well as the exhibition itself, is evidential of the government’s anxiety toward the ideological cooperation of their Korean subjects. Fifteen years on from the exhibition, the brochure situates the Colonial Industry Exhibition in a similar juxtaposition between ‘modern’ and ‘ancient’. The description of the 1915 “treasures of ancient art” is paired with that of the “recent establishment” of the government library.[7] The library possesses an “efficient male staff” and “ancient and foreign” collection. The contrast in language concentrates the historical timeline, forcing the reader to jump abruptly from the static relics of the museum to the humanised and spacious library. This suggests that the ideology of progress in the Colonial Industry Exhibition had to be reinforced in multiple different forms. By consolidating the aims of the exhibition in written form it implies that Korea’s modernisation needed to be immortalised in text to reinforce the lived experiences of the population. This implies an artificial application of ideology to space, in contrast to De Certeau’s abstract acting out of the city.[8] It suggests that the government struggled to fully impart the messages of the exhibition, which is reinforced by reports of confusion and misunderstanding.[9] The attempt to transform the notion of ‘progress’ from a timely process into an immediate lived state connects with Michel de Certeau’s suggestion that it is discourse which makes space habitable.[10] In the report of Chōsen of Today, language of juxtaposition seeks to transform the empty and artificially constructed modernity of the Colonial Industry Exhibition into a lived experience, long after the event.

Consequently, the anxieties of the brochure reveal the failures of the 1915 exhibition. The preface states that change should be “manifest to even the most casual observer” and that “the aim of this brochure is to give readers at a glance some real idea of the progress…”.[11] The gulf between the “casual observer” and the “reader” is apparent on reflection. The “observer” would be far from the audience of a government-issued brochure, as the necessity of technological progress was largely aimed at small-town agricultural farmers and industrial labourers who would be unable to access such materials. In the same way, the ideological messages of the exhibition remained obscure to the observer. Patrol officers and cooperative community guides were placed to either physically steer the visitors through the new modernity exhibited in the Kyŏngbok Palace or narrate the transformation between the two distinct eras.[12] Despite this, the visitors were the people who occupied the missing space in between the ancient and the modern. Consequently, they usurped the narrative of the Government-General, simply through their personal interpretations of the exhibits and the way they both physically and psychologically navigated the space. As De Certeau would suggest, this spatial practice resulted in the creation of “singularities”- individual visions which disrupted the government’s singular, concentrated timeline of Korea’s progression with multiple space-time divisions formed from the moment of their individual exhibition experience.[13]








[1] Government General of Chosen, Chosen of Today, (Korea, 1930), p.17.

[2] Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, (California, 1988), p.96.

[3] Government General of Chosen, Chosen of Today, (Korea, 1930), <> [accessed: 21 January 2022].

[4] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p.117.

[5] Government General of Chosen, Chosen of Today, p.17.

[6] Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul: Japanese Rule and the Politics of Public Space in Colonial Korea 1910-1945, (California, 2014), p.107.

[7] Government General of Chosen, Chosen of Today, p.17

[8] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p.98.

[9] Henry, Assimilating Seoul, p.108.

[10] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p.106.

[11] Government General of Chosen, Chosen of Today, p.1.

[12] Henry, Assimilating Seoul, p.105.

[13] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p.100.