The Ateneum, which opened to the public in 1888, was the first official building in Finland dedicated to the arts. Photograph by Daniel Nyblin, 1890 / Finnish National Gallery.

Peer Reviewed Article: The Art Museum as Author of Art History – The Formation of a National Art Collection in Finland and the Case of Copies

Susanna Pettersson, PhD, Museum Director, Ateneum Art Museum

First published in ‘Mind and Matter. Selected Papers of Nordik 2009 Conference for Art Historians’. Edited by Johanna Vakkari. Taidehistoriallisia tutkimuksia / Studies in Art History 41. Helsinki: Taidehistorian seura – Society of Art History, 216–227.

People have always been keen to hear, tell and build complete stories. The reasons have to do with the encyclopaedic need to understand the world and its mechanisms and to govern the universe by relevant explanations. The more one knows the more power one has, as demonstrated in the early cabinets of curiosities of the Renaissance period.[1] The driving force behind every collection is a dream of completeness, and creating something that remains even after the collector’s death.[2] Collecting is also a statement of what’s considered valuable and worth seeing. In this sense a collector is a creator, a storyteller.

Public museums are not that different. They are committed to the formation of art history by collecting, displaying and interpreting works of art at an institutional level. Museums have become the official narrators of art history – but not without the individual decision-makers and gatekeepers who have used the institutional power. The formation of collections has depended on their personal value judgement, understanding and taste.

It’s also vital to understand the role of the museums as non-neutral, political tools. They have been used to build and to illustrate a nation, as authors such as Benedict Anderson[3] have suggested. Museums create an institutional aura for the master narratives, and help nations to visualise the past and the present by displaying collections according to the greater consensus.[4] This is particularly interesting in the case of 19th-century representations since that was typically an era of ‘one’ story, art history forming a good example of this.

This article looks into one of the early Finnish cases, the formation of the art collection of the Finnish Art Society[5], and describes the high expectations and controversies that emerged in late 19th-century Finland when the collection was permanently displayed at the Ateneum building, opened to the public in the autumn of 1888 in Helsinki city centre.

[1] See Mauries, Patrick, Cabinets of Curiosities. Thames and Hudson, 2002.

[2] About the psychology of collecting see Muensterberger, Werner, Collecting: An Unruly Passion. Psychological Perspectives. San Diego, New York, London: A Harvest Book, 1994.

[3] Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

[4] This can be demonstrated by looking into the history of displays where different trends apply: the 19th-century collection display emphasised the traditional story of art told with the help of different Schools and this remained the dominating way to address the issue until the last decades of 20th century when museums started to present multiple stories at the same time, mixing and blending the major narrative with minor narratives, representing the local and global together and travelling in time, thus demonstrating the links from the contemporary to the past. For influential examples see the documentation of the 1998 collection display at Moderna Museet, Stockholm and the 2000 collection display at Tate Modern, London.

[5] For an extensive study of the formation of the collection of the Finnish Art Society see Pettersson, Susanna, Suomen Taideyhdistyksestä Ateneumiin. Fredrik Cygnaeus, Carl Gustaf Estlander ja taidekokoelman roolit. Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura: Helsinki, 2008.

Featured image: The Ateneum, which opened to the public in 1888, was the first official building in Finland dedicated to the arts. Photograph by Daniel Nyblin, 1890 / Finnish National Gallery

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