▲ Various scenes from Jeju's newest attraction Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum Jeju. Photos courtesy Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum Jeju
Accept no imitations. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum Jeju is here to stay, unlike Korean fashion trends.
The world’s largest museum franchise christened its 32nd grand building, located in the heart of the Jungmun Tourist Complex, on Dec. 24. On Christmas Day Ripley’s welcomed 3,000 visitors to this massive collection of oddities, the first such in South Korea, according to museum president Jannings W. Lee.
Considering the island’s tourism options, which show no shortage of kitschiness, gaudiness, and just pure silliness, Ripley’s, figuratively and literally, stands staunchly above it all.
This is a bold statement considering what is presented in 12 galleries comprised of 600 exhibits includes an executioner’s sword, anatomical sheaths, hair strands from various dead people, paintings on single beans and grains of rice, details of circus sideshow midgets, and a wedding dress made of toilet paper.
Equally of note, a Western traveler must consider that there are Ripley’s strategically located in four of the United States’ most honky-tonk, tourist-trap hotbeds: Branson (Missouri), Hollywood (California), Gatlinburg (Tennessee) and Wisconsin Dells (Wisconsin).
No need to worry. The island is different. Having stepped inside a few stateside Ripley’s before, I can safely say that Jeju’s museum has more, a lot more. It is completely modern and elicits childhood memories. It speaks to all ages and offers tasteful selections in the gift shop. It is educationally experience-based and delivers several hours of plain fun.
On approach to the museum’s exterior, a visitor may think, “What’s going on?” There are multitudes of bright colors and disjointed architectural bits.
“Think of it as a robot,” Ripley’s president Lee said. “It’s curiosity, and thinking – it’s a process and the energy to find out something. The body is displaced and it has mixed all things together.”
“The museum offers many strong factors; it’s a landmark for tourism,” said Lee, whose youthful exuberance signals that he, with a resume almost as lengthy as Robert Ripley’s traveling exploits, is the right man for the job.
Ripley, an American cartoonist, traveled the world for the better part of 35 years, setting foot in 198 countries and eventually building a museum to present what the world had revealed to him along the way. He died on air during his weekly radio broadcast in 1949. However, his legacy lives, especially in the 11 countries where his namesake museums are located.
There is a vast warehouse in Orlando, Florida which stores the companies’ hidden treasures. Much of what is displayed now in Jeju was laboriously transported from there.
Lee said Ripley’s Jeju will add 100 more exhibits, hopefully by March. Likewise, he is passionate about the idea of having rotating displays in the future to keep the island’s showcases fresh. The building’s exterior will occasionally morph as well.
While individual tastes vary, there are four attractions of particular note.
Perhaps morbid or macabre, the encased, genuine, 100-year-old Jivaro Indian Shrunken Heads were a hit with a friend and many Korean tourists. A short how-to video explains why the fist-sized war trophies exude such a distinctive leathery texture.
Also worth mentioning is the intricate and solid jade three-headed dragon boat carved from more than 200 pounds of the green ornamental stone. It is about the size of a car and is modeled after a real ship used by ancient Chinese Emperors.
Accompanying the exhibits are explanations written in four languages – Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese. Lee commented that Ripley’s is the first museum on Jeju to have this feature, where all languages are professionally and equitably translated.
Here, here! Anyone for toast art? Yes, Ripley’s has a fascinating rendition of Edouard Manet’s 1863 masterpiece “Olympia” done entirely in shades of burnt bread. It deserves more than a double take.
“The museum offers value,” Lee said. “It has family-oriented items. It is educational and knowledge-based; many are about people’s stories. Tourists will find different meanings in each display.”
Finally, of special significance are several artworks made of matchsticks. The grandest is the magnificent replica of the 1866 Robert E. Lee steamboat created from thousands of wooden slivers.
According to Lee, the average time visitors spend gawking is from 45 to 90 minutes. It is possible, however, to easily enjoy 2 or 3 hours at the museum. Lee projects that 450,000 visitors will grace Ripley’s in its first year and word-of-mouth advertising and individual Web chatter will account for most of its success.
If you want an encore, remember paging through the Guinness Book of World Records? Your memories will reawaken when you stand next to a mannequin of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man; or closely examine photographs of the longest fingernails (for men or women) ever.
Ripley’s is worth the 7,000 won admission fee for many reasons. Believe it.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum Jeju Jungmun Tourist Complex 2864-2 Saekdal-dong, Seogwipo City Phone: 064-738-3003 Hours: Weekdays, 9 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Weekends, 9 a.m. – 10 p.m.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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