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S. Korean museums, art communities waking up from coronavirus hiatus

National 17:32 May 07, 2020

By Park Boram

SEOUL, May 7 (Yonhap) -- Lee Hyo-jin, a 30-year-old job seeker, quietly kept her gaze on a masterpiece by South Korean monochrome painter Lee Ufan inside an exhibition hall at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art's (MMCA) Seoul branch on Thursday. It was her first artistic expedition after an over two-month coronavirus self-quarantine at home.

She said she is ready to resume her once-a-week museum tour routine from before COVID-19 as the national museum and other art galleries started to go back to business as usual.

The MMCA's four branches across the country along with many other state- or city-run art institutions and libraries resumed operations Wednesday, the day South Korea's strict social distancing guidelines were lifted on the back of sharp drops in local coronavirus infections.

It was the first opening of the MMCA's Seoul branch in the middle of South Korea's famous art gallery district in Samcheongdong, central Seoul, in nearly 70 days.

The reopening of the landmark institution is the latest sign of resuscitation in the main gallery district, which is witnessing art lovers and visitors returning after the two-month self-quarantine. The Seoul Museum of Art in central Seoul, one of the most-visited art museums in South Korea, also reopened this week as the local art community is starting to wake up from the coronavirus hiatus.

"I feel it's finally coming back to normal in terms of savoring art and culture. It's such a major change of mood to be able to come to an art museum after the long hold-up at home," according to Lee.

A visitor wearing a protective mask tours the Seoul branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) on May 7, 2020. (Yonhap)

The museum reopening, however, comes with highly precautionary quarantine measures as South Korea still remains vigilant against the risk of a relapse in local coronavirus infections.

The Seoul branch of the MMCA kept its three main gates closed despite the official business resumption, guiding visitors to a back door. It was the only gateway to the three-story art space available on the museum's second day of reopening. The museum tightly scrutinized and controlled the flow of visitors for fears of infection possibilities.

A visitor was required to make a prior booking for admission, and upon arrival at the museum, a fever test was enforced before visitors are let in.

Without a reservation, a visitor was required to provide personal information, contact numbers and an ID to verify his or her identity.

An official at the Seoul branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art conducts a fever test on a visitor on May 7, 2020. (Yonhap)

Wearing a protective mask and keeping a distance of two meters from others were required for all visitors.

In total, the MMCA Seoul museum is limiting the number of visitors to a daily ceiling of 400, divided into four different time slots, as it tries to keep the museum from becoming crowded.

The MMCA's three other branches in Gwacheon, Deoksu Palace and Cheongju, as well as the three branches of the Seoul Museum of Art, are running similar daily ceilings on admissions. The MMCA Seoul's main cafeteria also remains out of service as of Thursday.

The museums plan to gradually lift the restrictions and bring their operations into full swing going forward in accordance with the local pandemic situation.

On the second day of the resumption, the MMCA museum remained sparsely visited as caution and jitters about virus infections continued.

The four branches of the MMCA admitted 499 out of their combined maximum 1,720 visitors as of 16:00 p.m. Thursday after letting in 622 visitors a day earlier.

Despite the business resumption, the highly internationally intertwined art community here is likely to continue to feel the pinch of the global pandemic as North American and European countries are still reeling from COVID-19.

"The global coronavirus outbreaks reversed, canceled or rescheduled many exhibitions of the national museum," MMCA Director Yun Bum-mo said. "Despite the recent drops in local infections, the museum's exhibition projects continue to (face difficulties) because they heavily involve artworks from Europe and other countries where the pandemic remains unabated," he said.

As the first exhibitions after the hiatus, the MMCA is currently running "MMCA Collection Highlights 2020+," a show of 54 representative modern Korean art works, selected from the museum's own collection. It features such symbolic modern Korean artists as Koh Hee-dong and Lee Bul.

Another show underway is "Axis of Horizon," a compilation of experimental local and overseas art works featuring nature. Both shows are available for free.


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