Exhibition: Inspired By Nature, Traditional Cosmetics of Korea

DSC_0040The London Korean Cultural Centre’s most unique exhibition yet has been extended, so if you haven’t had a chance to pop to the KCC UK yet, you have until 20th April to catch the incredibly impressive ‘Inspired By Nature, Traditional Cosmetics of Korea’ exhibition. Featuring artefacts from the traditional cosmetics of Korea, this exhibition aims to show visitors the story of traditional Korean cosmetics and beauty, from the ingredients and creation processes to the preparation and application of make-up. The KCC UK, along with the Coreana Cosmetics Museum, has generously given us an extra two weeks to enjoy this fascinating and fun exhibition.

With around 150 objects making up this exhibition, there is a lot to discover and learn. All items are a loan from the Coreana Cosmetics Museum, South Korea, which was established to be “a central hub to offer research, preservation facilities and conservation of [cosmetic] artefacts“. The items that they’ve offered for this exhibition cover “all elements of the make-up routines of traditional Korea….the collections on display provide us with a fine record of an aspect of Korea’s long history that one would not normally see“. With organic and natural products being the latest trend in cosmetics, one of the central aspects of this exhibition is to show how natural ingredients and processes went into creating make-up in Korean culture from the very beginning. “Korean ancestors did not strive against nature; instead they were guided by its simple beauty” and this statement is certainly reflected in this exhibition as we witness a whole host of natural ingredients used in traditional Korean beauty as before industrialisation, Korean women would actually make their own make up from items such as beans and grains to flowers. Documented recipes include a fine, white face-powder made from rice, millet and four o’clock flower, as well as a facial soap made from mung beans and adzuki beans. Inspired by Nature teaches us about Korea’s nature-oriented cosmetic culture, and gives us an insight into the female quest for beauty in Korea.

This exhibition takes you on a journey as you walk through the KCC, each section displaying items from different segments of a Korean woman’s beauty regime throughout the eras. As visitors walk through the exhibition, it’s almost like they are getting ready alongside a lady of the past, seeing the preparation and creation of home made cosmetics and the apparatus used for application. From foundations and powders, with possibly the original beauty blender, to lip colouring and filling in of eyebrows, many practices are very familiar as they are still followed by the female population today! Then moving on to the accessories, in the form of hair accoutrements, dressing table finery and finally the perfume, you learn about the different beauty practices and fashion trends of the eras and dynasties as you progress through the exhibition hall.

Inspired by Nature - Traditional Korean Cosmetics

At the beginning of the exhibition you are greeted with an impressive array of powder pots, cosmetics cases and beautiful vanity boxes, showing packaging has always been very important to ladies, even in the olden days! On display in some very posh glass cases are also ornamental pendants, beautifully delicate hairpins and even ceremonial coronets and a wig said to cost as much as a house! The hairpins were especially interesting as many of those who attended last year’s closing film of the London Korean Film Festival Masquerade would have seen the King’s wife wearing a very impressive giant hair pin. Here you will be able to see these hair accessories close up. The detailing is amazing and ranges from precious metals to even some hair pins carved out of jade!

You’ll also be able to see what kind of ingredients were used, and how they were treated and turned into make-up. This exhibition shows us that “without preservatives, traditional cosmetics were made from raw materials” and as well as acting as make-up, these cosmetics “not just improved one’s appearance but also offered a curative treatment as well” due to the natural ingredients used as components for the different make-up. On display are natural ingredients such as safflower, ginseng root, apricot seeds, and cloves; just some of the traditional ingredients. Each ingredient comes with an explanation of how they were used in the cosmetics with detail of how this process took place. This was really interesting and you can see why South Koreans today are so fanatic about BB creams as even all those years ago, they favoured cosmetics that benefited your skin as well as making you look pretty!

Inspired by Nature - Traditional Korean CosmeticsA particular favourite part of the exhibition were the bronze mirrors on display. We all love a cute and dainty compact mirror, but these artifacts displaying the fashions and preferences of Korean ladies were amazing. The culture of bronze mirrors made popular in the Goryeo period displayed the amazing craftsmanship and tastes from the period. From delicately engraved images depicting a story to beautifully modern floral patterns and even some classic and simplistic designs, these artifacts have really stood the test of time!

The interactive part of this exhibition is in the public workshop area where you can fully immerse yourself into Korea’s perfume culture by making your own perfume! With little bottles, you can mix your chosen scents with your chosen oil to create a personalised perfume to take home and enjoy. “Koreans have long imbued their bodies with delicate scents and fragrances to control their stress-levels and well-being. Scents have many benefits and can be used during bathing to help one wake up as well as to improve one’s concentration, for example when studying”. This is a  fun area where you can learn more about how traditional perfumes were created and discover what scents complimented what oils to create your own signature, natural and calming perfume.

You’ll also find a very traditional grinder in the corner where you can have a go at grinding up mung beans which is used to make natural soap. “Ground Mung beans have long been used to whiten, detoxify and cleanse one’s skin and form a central ingredient of natural soap. Enjoying the calming feeling of preparing one’s own soap ingredients”. This rich heritage in skin care shows why South Koreans are renowned for their flawless skin and are one of the world leaders in facial beauty.

This exhibition is well worth a visit! Featuring a vast range and selection of artifacts, coupled with some very interesting information and interactive elements, it is definitely one of the KCC’s most extensive exhibitions yet! With concise and helpful information on display everywhere, as well as a very handy and detailed booklet to take away, ‘Inspired By Nature’ teaches you everything you want to know about the beginnings of Korean cosmetics and beauty. You won’t be able to see such items so up close very often, especially in the UK, so do go and have a look before it closes. For more information about the exhibition, you can look on the KCC UK’s website here. You don’t need to book, and it is free to enter during KCC UK open hours until April 20th.

If you are passionate about traditional Korea, why not join the guided exhibition tour this Thursday 11 April 2013 at 4:30. This tour also features a very special public workshop:

The natural ingredients used to produce traditional cosmetics will be introduced as part of the Exhibition’s public workshop programme. An opportunity to colour your finger nails using Garden Balsam flower (봉숭아 물들이기).

Book now by emailing the KCC on info@kccuk.org.uk or by phone 020 7004 2600

For more photos, take a look at our gallery here.

Sources: Information on display at exhibition and ‘Inspired By Nature, Traditional Cosmetics of Korea’ information booklet, available at the exhibition


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