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South Korean Museum visits: Mr. Toilet House and Nam June Paik

24 May 2017

In April I spent two weeks in South Korea and a week in Japan. (Why two weeks in South Korea?? I’ve been asked incredulously a few times. Quick answer: my sister and brother-in-law live there. Another quick answer: it’s a great place to visit!)

While in Eastern Asia, I do what I always do while touristing, and visited many museums. Some of them were forgettable, but some of them I think are worthy of a post, including these two that are thematically very(!!) different, but geographically, neighbors. They’re both located in Suwon, about 20 miles south of Seoul.

First up is the Toilet Museum (Haewoojae) also known as “Mr. Toilet House.”


The story behind Mr. Toilet House: Suwon’s late mayor Sim Jae-Duck was given the nickname “Mr. Toilet” for his passionate leadership of the “Toilet Culture Movement” to improve public toilets. In 1996 he started the Beautiful Toilet Culture Campaign, and the city declared its intent to build the most beautiful public toilets in the world (motivated also in part by the then-upcoming 2002 FIFA World Cup which they were to host). Mr. Toilet took things a bit further than merely creating government departments and task forces, however, when he rebuilt his own house in the shape of a toilet and named it Haewoojae, which means “a room where you can relieve your worries.” It features a central toilet room as the “core of living,” with transparent glass walls that turn opaque with the flip of a light switch.

The house was completed in 2007, and upon Sim’s death in 2009, it was willed to the city of Suwon. The city then converted it into a museum and culture park.


The museum is small and has clear, simple graphics (nearly all with English translations) that earnestly convey information about the history and global spread of modern sanitation, and other toilet-related subjects.

There are also lighthearted illustrations of poops and flies (including on the floor, used as a navigational device) and [perhaps unintentionally] hilarious double entendres in the writing.


Outside, there is a culture park. A meandering path leads you past examples of toilets used throughout Eastern and Western history, to give an understanding of how toilets have physically changed over time.


Next door you can visit the Haewoojae Culture Center for a birds-eye view of the Toilet Museum.



Next stop in Suwon: the Nam June Paik Art Center. The Nam June Paik Art Center opened in 2008 and holds 248 pieces of video installations and drawings, mostly of Nam June Paik’s but also of other contemporary artists. The art center hosts changing exhibitions of Paik’s work, special exhibitions of contemporary artists, performances, events, and educational programs. It also houses Paik’s archives and a library, undertakes research, and publishes scholarly journals and monographs.



The art center changes exhibitions regularly; they use their Nam June Paik-focused exhibitions to focus on different aspects of his work. While I was there, the exhibition was called Point-Line-Plane-TV, which “explor[ed] Nam June Paik’s canvas including intermedia such as television, score, film, and video, in notion of flatness.”


On the mezzanine level is the Education Room, seen in the photos below; a quiet place to have a seat and read some tables about the artist’s life.


Upstairs was Imaginary Asia, a special exhibition of 23 pieces in the motion images genre. Many of the videos were projected onto large walls, with small bench nooks that sat 2–3 people for viewing.



Like at Mr. Toilet House—and actually at many, many places I visited in South Korea—navigational cues and directions were applied directly to floors. In the Point-Line-Plane-TV exhibition they also applied interpretive text to the floor. Interpretive text was in both Korean and English.


Outside, the curved glass exterior of the the art center is modeled on the form of a grand piano, a common motif in Paik’s work, and on the letter P. But that is only apparent when you look at the museum map—the actual experience from outside is of an impressive modernist building.


There’s a small park just beside the museum—perfect for a rest after an afternoon’s museum visit—and nearby are the Gyeonggi Provincial Museum (which has limited English translations) and the Gyeonggi Children’s Museum.

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