The MFA’s “Korean Wave” Exhibition Is Thrilling

With "Hallyu!," an exuberant showcase of Korean culture, old and new, comes to the Museum of Fine Arts.

A still from the Netflix phenomenon Squid Game, 2021 Netflix. / All Rights Reserved, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Unless you’ve been living off the grid for the past decade or two, you’re probably aware of the wide variety of South Korean culture that has been washing over our shores. From K-Pop and K-Cinema to the latest in fashions and technology, the peninsula nation is the epicenter of so many new and exciting developments in arts and media. And now the Museum of Fine Arts is celebrating it all with a retrospective called “Hallyu! The Korean Wave,” which opens March 24 and runs through July 28.

Originally displayed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, “Hallyu!” features a mind-boggling display of hundreds of items: outfits worn by superstars BTS; costumes and props from hit shows like Squid Game; haute couture and streetwear fashions; and even a full-scale recreation of that famously cramped bathroom from the Oscar-winning movie Parasite. But the MFA has also added its own touches to the exhibition to connect with Boston. There’s a section on the Korean-American experience, for example, as reflected by local contemporary artists such as Timothy Hyunsoo Lee. The museum is also contributing treasures from its own Korean arts collection, many dating back centuries: One is a beautiful traditional garment called a hanbok that can be contrasted with glamorous 1990s updates by legendary fashion designer Lee Young-Hee.

K-Pop girl group Aespa / ©Sm Entertainment, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“A lot of the things we think are so cool and trendy today have deep roots in the tradition and have deep roots in Korean identity,” says Christina Yu Yu, chair of the MFA’s Art of Asia collection. “Part of the success story of Korea gaining a national identity on the international scene is due to the modern technology where Korea has been at the forefront, with Internet infrastructure, Samsung, and Hyundai. And from the fandom side, I also feel that the younger generation is looking for something more than American or Western culture. It’s hard to think of another pop-culture phenomenon like it.”

Oscar-winning film Parasite/ Andrew Bannister and Curzon, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Moon Jar Dress, Blue, 2021. / Minju Kim, Photo Sangmi An, Model Leehyun Kim, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston