Myeong-Hee Bae is a pleasant old woman with white hair and red glasses. On a Monday afternoon she brought me an iced coffee, American-style, and directed me to a chair sitting at a large table made of dark wood. Children were using crayons to draw on small white squares of paper, which they would later tape to her wall. For the past seven years, many children have come and put their drawings up on her wall. And yet, despite what must be a great variety of children, with differences in everything from age to drawing ability, there is a perfect uniformity to the pictures they’ve hung. In other words, every kid who has ever made a drawing for Myeong-Hee Bae has always drawn the exact same thing:
This is because Myeong-Hee Bae is better known as the “crazy owl lady.” She runs a small museum in Samcheong-dong called The Owl Art and Craft Museum. The name is an apt description of the place. Inside the Owl Museum, one can find…well…lots and lots of owls. There are owl sculptures, owl figurines, plates with owls on them, owl ceramics, owl paintings, blankets with owls, owl clocks, telegraphs that show owls, owl fans, owl folding screens, owl masks, and pretty much everything else one could think of with the exception of a real live owl sitting there on a tree branch in the museum. Myeong-Hee Bae and her husband even resemble owls a little bit themselves. They have a stately quality about them; it’s the same personality trait an owl has that makes people want to draw a pair of glasses on its beak or a graduation cap on its head.
Don’t be mistaken, though. The Owl Museum isn’t so much about craft or aesthetics, and it certainly isn’t about learning about owls. The Owl Museum is about one thing, clear and simple:
Obsession. More specifically, owl obsession.
Unlike some museums, the Owl Museum is a private residence, meaning it was Myeong-Hee Bae’s home until she and her husband decided to renovate it and turn it into a museum. The collection has taken her over 30 years to assemble and consists of more than 2,500 pieces of owl memorabilia. There are pieces from about 80 countries, from owl paintings made in Asia all the way to Hooters beer koozies from Winnipeg. Essentially, this woman really liked owl stuff a lot and hoarded so much of it that she ended up having to turn her house into a museum. It’s the sort of thing that makes the term ‘private collection’ seem contradictory – here’s a woman who took her home and opened it up, charging 5,000 won a person to come have a cup of coffee or tea with her and look at the things she’s assembled ever since she was a child.
Walking through the Owl Museum and seeing Myeong-Hee Bae sitting there at a table with the children coloring their owls, I started to think. What makes a museum a museum? Really, the experience wasn’t any different from being in her living room, only I was invited by a sign and not a phone call. I thought about the goofy stuff I’ve collected over the years. If my purchases were more thematically oriented, maybe my home could be a museum as well. This was just, well, her junk…only her junk was so narrowly honed that it became impressive. As I looked around, the thought struck me that, despite this massive collection, it seemed to say very little about the woman herself.
Here was thirty years of meticulous, painstaking collecting, and what did it say about Myeong-Hee Bae other than that she liked owls? I didn’t know why she liked owls, or what exactly she liked about them. For some reason, owls seemed to make her happy and content. She brought them in, and they brought people to her. Children. She sat with her husband and watched them color.
There is no other owl museum on the planet earth other than Myeong-Hee Bae’s Owl Art and Craft Museum. It’s eccentric and perplexing, as odd as owls must find humans. At the end of the day I put an owl mask on and sat on a bench in the museum with my friend (who, of course, also had a mask on). Myeong-Hee Bae smiled and took our picture. Just as so many children have drawn pictures for her, she certainly has taken photographs of so many people. How many, I wonder. It must be thousands.
All strangers, wandering over from Insa-dong, spending a few minutes of their ordinary lives with her and her owls.