Editorial: ‘When Museums Are Open Again, the Crisis Is Over’

Leevi Haapala, PhD, Museum Director, Finnish National Gallery, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma

 

27 March 2020

 

Less than two weeks ago, the Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin gave a memorable press conference in which she highlighted the exceptional situation in the country due to the coronavirus epidemic. Government officials started to draft the implementation of the exceptional law to protect the most vulnerable parts of the population. One consequence is to limit large audience gatherings and to keep cultural institutions, museums and concert halls closed to avoid spreading the virus. In the FNG’s management team we could not expect it to happen that soon. We had already prepared new and safe instructions on museum etiquette for our audiences, and even stopped using devices such as touch screens and headsets to avoid direct contact among our audiences. Still, one of our key tasks is to keep museums’ doors open to serve our audiences. Now that our doors have been closed we are facing a different reality from that of two weeks ago, and asking our staff for ideas, as well as feedback from our visitors on what we should do and how we can best serve our audiences now.

During the past ten days our organisation has finally taken the famous digital leap also on an everyday level, not only as one of the institution’s strategic goals. Last week’s word was cancelling, and this weeks’ word is reorganising. Remote work from home requires all the technical support to keep digitally functioning, which is vital for keeping spirits high, teams together and projects running. Online meetings via Teams and Skype meetings, the intranet’s project work spaces, and WhatsApp groups are already in use alongside more conventional platforms like Intra news and email. Also a surprise, old-fashioned phone calls are back in our toolkit!

In the current edition of FNG Research we cover different subject matters and research interests, national, transnational and global, linked to the future of our collections. One of the key articles, by Gill Crabbe, is dedicated to the European Revivals research project initiated by the Finnish National Gallery in 2009, which aimed to examine the phenomena surrounding European national revivals from a more wide-scale international perspective. Its concluding conference, ‘Art, Life and Place: Looking at European Transnational Exchange in the Long 19th century’ earlier this year at the Ateneum Art Museum, as well as its five previous international conferences, scores of published papers and affiliated exhibitions, have broadened the scope of European revivals substantially. ‘The issue of cultural revivals, whether national, universal or local, is far more wide-reaching, multidimensional and complex than we could possibly have imagined at the beginning of this journey’, state the Director of Collections Management Dr Riitta Ojanperä and Chief Curator of the Ateneum Art Museum Dr Anna-Maria von Bondsdorff, who were both initiators of the research project.

Another text, which relates to the revival research project, is the introductory lecture by Anne-Maria Pennonen to her recent doctoral thesis In Search of Scientific and Artistic Landscape Düsseldorf Landscape Painting and Reflections of the Natural Sciences as Seen in the Artworks of Finnish, Norwegian and German Artists, which was examined in February 2020 at Helsinki University. Pennonen’s key analysis in her thesis is to explore the intellectual and mental changes in the historio-social and temporal context taking place in Finnish landscape painting in the second half of the 19th century, and ‘how the general awareness of ideas concerning nature and developments related to the history of nature changed’. Landscape in art is not only linked to landscape painting, but it is also an aesthetic category, and post-nationalistic discourse, which will be revisited in the future.

Today we are witnessing unexpected drastic changes globally in our societies. While writing this I should have been finishing my speech for the opening ceremony of the ‘Mad Love’ exhibition, curated from Seppo Fränti’s large art collection, but now the show awaits post-crisis rescheduling. Fränti’s collection is his life’s work and he donated it to the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma / Finnish National Gallery two years ago. Obviously, this ‘opening of the decade’ had to be cancelled due to the current situation and limitations on large public gatherings. In this FNG Research edition we publish two articles that deepen our understanding of the 650 works in the donated collection.

In the first article Kiasma Collections Chief Curator Dr Kati Kivinen and Curator Dr Saara Hacklin, who together curated ‘Mad Love’, analyse the significance of the collection and describe the collection handling and management processes that were key elements in the acceptance of this large-scale donation. For nearly four decades, Fränti has been collecting mostly Finnish visual arts and especially paintings by talented young artists of the period. The statistics of the collection reveal its structure: ‘While the Fränti Collection complements the museum’s collection, it also alters it. The donation comprises works by 90 artists, of whom more than 50 are new to the museum. It also adds weight to the proportion of Finnish paintings from the 2010s in the museum’s collection.’ The Fränti Collection has come under the institution’s protective wing and is promoted to be a part of a public collection and a shared cultural heritage looked after by professionals.

In the second article on the Fränti Collection art historian Dr Juha-Heikki Tihinen brilliantly analyses the emotional contents that are activated through collecting and attempts to understand the psychological dimensions of the collector living in a labyrinth-like open art repository. Tihinen asks: ‘How should one approach a very eclectic collection?’ While museums often seem to seek coherence and comprehensive representations of certain time periods, private collectors are allowed to focus on specific artists or phenomena in art. As Tihinen points out, the Fränti Collection ‘is more of a passionate verbalisation of the opportunities and boundlessness of art’, reflecting the collector’s mental landscape within the field of contemporary art. Tihinen’s art-historical perspective takes in some iconic collectors and museum quality collections, and examines the ideals and behavioural patterns behind collecting, opening up wider understanding of the meaning of collectors for the art world. Tihinen also leaves us with an image of Seppo Fränti as an enthusiastic art lover and as a storyteller through his active and passionate role as a collector among two generations of artists in Finland.

Our task in the museums is to ask ourselves, what kind of narratives we create from this current time of epidemic crisis and its prevailing dystopic mindscape. We should ask ourselves, how do we write relevant histories in a time of crisis, and what are the lessons we should learn? Those forthcoming stories should be multiple, linked to other stories, individual narratives from all around the world, not only given official truths or nationalistic narratives. I would see our artists from local and global communities being very perceptive at this point. And the multidisciplinary results will be seen sooner than we think on different platforms, most likely first on online digital platforms, and later on in museums and galleries, when we are ready to reopen and to meet again face to face.

P.S. The title of this editorial is taken from a column by Anna-Stina Nykänen in 26 March edition of Helsingin Sanomat, entitled ‘Why the closing of the museums made me cry?’ The current epidemic reminds the author of the writings after the Second World War, when the opening of the museums was seen as a real sign of peace.

Featured image: Kiasma suljettu / stängt / closed. March 2020
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen