Following is part of a series exploring unique museums, collections and the passionate collectors behind them. ― Ed.
Tucked away off the beaten paths of the old-time, traditional streets of Insa-dong lies a museum that provides visitors with a one-of-a-kind tea shop experience. The Beautiful Tea Museum, which is actually a renovated hanok or a traditional Korean house, is not just a museum, but a gallery, a café and a tea shop all wrapped up into one.
When it first opened its doors in the winter of 2004, the museum intended to exhibit old tea plates relics from around the world. However, it has taken a turn to offering visitors an opportunity to not only appreciate the art of tea, but to be able to actually enjoy trying out different flavors after viewing the exhibits.
The shop exhibiting teas from around the world inside the Beautiful Tea Museum in Insa-dong. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
“At first, this way meant to be opened as a museum. However, the place had the feel of a café as well, which is why it was decided that it would be both a museum and café,” said Choi Eun-jung, the museum’s manager. “You can come to our café and drink some tea, then walk over to our shop to see all the varieties of tea that we are exhibiting.”
The museum has a small gallery area, located next to the openly spaced café. Currently on exhibition in the gallery is the unique works of the local artist Hong Jin-sik. His artwork on display is a collection of tea inspired porcelain ceramic pottery, including small, handmade teapots coming in various shapes, colors and sizes.
Many of the teapots are bold, with various geometric patterns carved into them. But what makes most of the teapots standout is that they have an animal figurine sculpted and used as the top handle of the teapot lid.
“Even the teapots here all tell a story,” said Choi. “Sometimes animals go off the trail and lose their way. And through their long journey, they are hoping to eventually be able to find their way back home.”
Aside from the various teapots ― which one would come to expect when thinking about tea-inspired art ― there is also a collection of more abstract variations. Not of teapots, cups or plates, but of infants.
The pieces titled “Pause of Daily Life” and “Meeting Life,” are sculptures of babies with large, square-shaped faces, closed eyes, crossed legs holding onto a small teapot with two hands held out in front of it.
“People who know the artist say that all the baby sculptures actually look like him,” Choi laughed.
“Healed by the Small Joy Inside” is a sculpture of a sitting baby with a small, round head and a very small face. The baby is looking solemnly downward with a miniature teapot that has been placed inside its belly.
Another infant sculpture, titled “Ultimate Beauty,” shows a round-faced infant, with a somber facial expression and both hands held in front of it. There is single branch coming out from its back with a large leaf resting at the top of the baby’s head. The baby has a small square cut-out located at the center of its belly with a tiny tea cup placed inside it.
“Even though we are located in Insa-dong, we wanted the museum to not only have an old-time feel to it, but a modern feeling as well to attract people of all ages,” Choi said.
The gallery at the Beautiful Tea Museum is unconventional in that it solely dedicates the small space to displaying works of art that express some kind of relationship with tea. The artworks are displayed on rotation and the collection by artist Hong will be on show through Jan. 8.
The tea cafe located at the center of the Beautiful Tea Museum. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
Along with displaying works of art in the gallery section, the museum also offers more than 100 different types of tea from all over the world including Korea, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, India, Europe and others. The museum not only exhibits these various types of tea, but it also has a shop where visitors can purchase and learn about some exotic teas during their visit.
After taking in the various artworks that are displayed in the gallery portion of the museum and taking a look at the different varieties of tea on stock at the tea shop, visitors can then head over to the café to relax and enjoy a cup of tea while indulging themselves in a variety of tea desserts including green tea waffles and sweet rice cakes.
The Beautiful Tea Museum is located in Insa-dong and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no admission fee to view the gallery.
By Julie Jackson (email@example.com