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Unlocking Korea

Most museum exhibits are kept carefully under lock and key, but for the next several months at Flushing Town Hall, the standard array of deadbolts and latches will be protecting a collection of their own ornate ancestors.

“Talismans of Protection from Choson Korea” features locks, latches and key charms from the Choson Dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910. The exhibit opened Oct. 10 and runs through Jan. 31. It is open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

Flushing Town Hall shares the exhibit with the Manhattan-based Korea Society, which hopes to take it on a nationwide tour. But in Flushing, which has one of the largest Korean populations of any neighborhood in the city, the idea is to be relevant to the community.

“We certainly want to respect the community that we’re in,” said Ellen Kodadek, the museum’s executive director, noting that Flushing Town Hall held an exhibit on Chinese locks, windows and doors last year. “This was a good way to pay homage to this wonderful culture.”

Many of the locks from the era were simple, rectangular devices, but fancier locks had silver inlays and sliding plates that revealed the keyhole only after several steps. Koreans chose the fish to decorate many of these locks for two reasons: Fish sleep with their eyes open, symbolizing perpetual vigilance, and their large numbers of offspring evoked prosperity.

The latches on gates were wooden, more roughly hewn, and often made in the shape of turtles, whose shells connoted security and long life.

The locks themselves were not the only things Koreans from this era came to embellish. Keys in a Korean household were all tied to a wooden board with decorative silk key charm kept by the matriarch of the family. Because the keys represented domain over the house and its contents, mothers passed them down to their daughters or daughters-in-law as a generational changing of the guard.

These carefully embroidered key charms became works of art unto themselves, boasting tassels and elaborate, colorful patterns.

The exhibit is on loan from the Lock Museum in Seoul, South Korea. Founder Hong Kyu Choi, who also runs one of South Korea’s largest chain of hardware stores, started the museum in 2004 after becoming fascinated with the subject. Now the facility features more than 10,000 locks, keys and other related artifacts.

“The real meaning of locks is communication,” he said through an interpreter. “In Korea, especially, it’s an ancient philosophy. It’s not about locking — it’s about unlocking.”

The facility earned high marks from Korea Society President Evans Revere.

“How he managed to do this with such intensity and carry on a career in another area is beyond me,” he said.

Choi praised the craftsmanship of the pieces and said they showed that functionality and aesthetic beauty are not mutually exclusive.

“They try to include their wishes and their aspirations in them,” he said of the craftsmen, noting that fewer than 10 still practice the art in his country.

And, like the philosophy that drew him to locks in the first place, Choi hopes the exhibit will open doors to Americans unfamiliar with his culture.

“I want to inform people in the United States of the real beauty of Korean culture. Though it might look rough, the more time you spend with it, it comes from the inside.”

IF YOU GO

Talismans of Protection from Choson Korea

Where: Flushing Town Hall, 137-35 Northern Blvd., Flushing

When: Oct. 10 - Jan. 31, Thursday - Sunday, noon - 5 p.m.

Cost: Suggested donation $5

For More: flushingtownhall.org or 463-7700

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