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The 5.18 Memorial Cultural Hall converted from Jeonil Building, a Highlight of Gwangju Massacre in South Korea

2024/05/01
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Author: Maria del Pilar Alvarez(Professor at Universidad del Salvador, USAL; Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina, CONICET)

Email: mdelpilar.alvarez@usal.edu.ar


The Gwangju Massacre plays a pivotal role in the struggle for democracy in South Korea. Since the 1990s, Gwangju City has become a “city of memory” to its citizens.  No other place on the Korean Peninsula boasts considerable monuments and museums, dedicated to commemorating the oppression and violence under the dictatorial regime.

Among the various memorial sites in Gwangju City, May 18 Memorial Park is remarkably renowned. Through the active memorialization policies of 2017, the National Institute of Scientific Investigation identified 245 bullet marks in the Jeonil Building, where a great number of protesters had sought shelter but tragically lost their lives. After four years of renovation, the building was renamed “Jeonil Building 245” and opened to the public as a historical education site.

During the 1980s, Geumnam-ro, the street where Jeonil Building 245 was situated, was the very site of intense clashes between protesters, citizens, and the military. Presently, the area is bustling with stores, restaurants, and coffee shops in Gwangju city's heart. For those unfamiliar with the Korean language, the city bus 518 offers the best option, as it passes through several memorial sites, including Jeonil Building 245.

 

The entrance of 5.18 Memorial Cultural Hall.(Photo by Maria del Pilar Alvarez)

The 5.18 Memorial Cultural Hall occupies the 9th and 10th floors of the Jeonil Building. Upon entering the 10th-floor entrance, visitors encounter an information desk offering reservation service for free tour guides. Notably, some of the guides are survivors of the tragic events of May 1980. The tour begins with an installation reminding us that the building is a witness to the Gwangju massacre. As visitors roam through a wide and dimly lit corridor, they experience stimulated gunfire from four overhead lines of bullets, accompanied by a monochromatic video depicting a helicopter opening fire on visitors, creating an immensely dreadful and intimidating atmosphere. In the subsequent room, bathed in natural light, dozens of bullet holes near the ceiling come into sight. With didactic labels placed aside, these evidences elucidate when, what, and how the massacre occurred and who should be responsible.

 

The bullet holes on the wall suggest that the building was fired upon from helicopters during the May 18 Gwangju Massacre in 1980.(Photo by Maria del Pilar Alvarez)

In the giant screen projection room, a 3D projection stimulates the scene military helicopters open fire on the building from a distance, soldiers with M16 rifles strafing bullets, while flying directly into visitors’ eyes. Though it sounds terrifying, the stimulation is not merely aiming to create a breathtaking experience. It is intended to teach visitors of all ages to reflect on and learn lessons from the inhumane past. By narrating history through video games, archive photos, and relevant documents, the exhibition manages to strike a balance between historical memory and the authenticity of facts.

 

 The exhibition combines 3D projection and interactive games, allowing the visitor to experience the oppression of the conflict. (Photo by Maria del Pilar Alvarez)

Visitors may find “distorted history” thought-provoking. Upon stepping into the room, visitors will find four doors, each representing a different violent act and having a controversial question aside. To understand how the truth has been distorted by the deniers, one has to open the door. The facts not only revealed how the media manipulates information but also how past collaborators carried out campaigns to discredit memory politics, even in a democratic society. What makes this exhibition particularly significant is not solely in its value but its agency to stimulate curiosity and reflection.

 

The exhibition prompts reflection on the Gwangju Massacre through the questions on the original doors.(Photo by Maria del Pilar Alvarez)

The tour concludes with testimonies from witnesses of various perspectives, encompassing bereaved families, the injured, media journalists, hospital staff, and members of the martial law forces. Their words form a more comprehensive narrative,  enriching the exhibit titled “Voices of Truth”.

The museum exhibitions are permanent and feature labels in Chinese, Japanese, and English. When visiting South Korea, it is highly recommended to plan a visit to Jeonil Building 245 on your itinerary, as the journey from Seoul to Gwangju takes about a day. Last but not least, note that there are two cities both named Gwangju, which may cause confusion. However, almost every Korean is familiar with the 1980 massacre and its location, and they are usually willing to provide directions.

 

English Editor: Weng, Chung Wen

Executive Editor: Hsieh, Chia Chun 


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