Portraits of Finnish Artists. Stories of Finnish Art Collections Exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Retelling the Stories of Finnish Art

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

A year on from the opening of ‘Stories of Finnish Art’, the collections exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum, Director Susanna Pettersson reflects on how her team went about reinterpreting an art-historical narrative by means of collections display, while designer Marcel Schmalgemeijer explains his innovative approach to the visual presentation of the show

In 2014, when Susanna Pettersson became Director of Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum – one of the three museums of the Finnish National Gallery – the elegant Neo-Renaissance building was in the throes of renovation, with its permanent collections squeezed into just three rooms on the ground floor. Pettersson’s appointment was not only timely, but she was also well placed to effect a radical change in reworking the collections display, not only as someone with tailormade academic credentials – she did her PhD on the museum’s collections history – but also as a joint professor of museology with her finger sensitively on the pulse of trends in the field.

‘The building and how it works was very familiar to me,’ says Pettersson, ‘from the time that it started out in October 1888, as well as how the spaces have been used at different times. The collection, which covers the period 1809–1970, is the heart of the Ateneum, so for me it was clear that we needed to move the collections to the ground and first floors and temporary exhibitions to the second floor and I started the process of collecting a core team to discuss this.’ The team Pettersson was working with were looking for new ways to interpret the collection and new approaches to the collections research.

From the vision that resulted in the ‘Stories of Finnish Art’ exhibition that opened in 2016 (continuing through to 2020), two things stand out in the way that Pettersson marshalled these resources. First, she set about cultivating an environment of thinking outside the box, or as she puts it, ‘curiosity as a driver’, and secondly she inspired an unusually wide range of expertise to participate fully in the process.

The usual scenario for an exhibitions team would include a curator or two, designer, someone taking care of the educational side, another handling texts and catalogue, plus core technicians. Pettersson decided instead to gather the ‘largest possible team around the table’ comprising staff from all departments, including front-of-house staff, guides, gallery attendants, technicians, educational staff, research expertise, curators – ‘everyone who had in-house experience, such as visitor experience and how people use the collections and what they do and don’t appreciate.’

The range of expertise Pettersson has drawn on reveals much about her human values. ‘I wanted to discuss how we set up the story with the entire team and that was wonderful process because it also created a sense of ownership by everyone, and we could show each other how much we know about the collection from various perspectives which are not taken for granted. For example, the lived-in experience of someone who has been working as a gallery attendant for the past 20 years is so valuable – they have information that none of us on the curatorial side could ever dream of possessing in the same way.’

Such wide consultation did indeed bring with it some surprises. ‘Creating the story included lots of ideas that needed to be tested and at the end of the day we really had to kill lots of darlings,’ says Pettersson. ‘For example, originally we had the idea of building an entire wall celebrating the history of Finnish female painters and sculptors, but then our guides said that’s not a good idea. One of the arguments was that if we separate the Finnish female painters from the rest of the story it can be regarded as some sort of arrogant gesture. We then decided not to go in that direction and instead we integrated the women artists into the entire exhibition in order to reflect how things were in society at the time.’

Featured image: Portraits of Finnish Artists. ‘Stories of Finnish Art’ collections exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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