Ferdinand von Wright, Pigs and Magpies, 1875, oil on canvas, 63cm x 83cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

A Question of Time

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

As the Ateneum Art Museum reopens to present its new-look display of its permanent collection, Gill Crabbe discusses its core theme with the curator Anne-Maria Pennonen and doctoral candidate Mariia Niskavaara and asks how they set about their radical approach in viewing its artworks through the lens of today’s urgent world issues 

This spring, if you walk into the Central Hall of the Ateneum Art Museum, the architectural heart of this elegant neoclassical building which houses the Finnish National Gallery’s Ateneum Art Museum collections, you will no longer encounter the grand Golden Age paintings that have long resided there as lauded foundation works in the canon of Finnish art. Gone are the classic monumental canvases of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Pekka Halonen, and Albert Edelfelt, some to be dispersed across other rooms in the new reworking of the collections display. Instead, in this cream of the Gallery’s exhibition spaces one finds a dynamic mix of works old and new, famous and less well-known, large-scale and small, some iconic in a new way, some charming and some frankly confronting. And their common ground? All are reflecting one of the most urgent issues on today’s world agenda – Nature.

For the age of nature is the age which it is said we are now entering; having traversed at ever-increasing speed the anthropocene, we are now beginning to face a world that places humans and non-humans on a more equal footing, as we start to realise the impact of humans on the non-human world. Thus for the Ateneum Art Museum’s new collections display the theme of The Age of Nature has emerged, following discussions, consultations and copious research, as the central topic alongside three others: Art and Power, Images of a People, and Modern Life. These four themes together provide a lens through which we can view afresh the Gallery’s collections under the umbrella title of the exhibition ‘A Question of Time’.

Since 2016, when the previous reworking of the collections display opened to mark the centenary of Finnish Independence with the theme ‘Stories from Finnish Art’, the world has changed more than we could possibly have imagined, with Covid-19, war in Ukraine, widespread economic recession, the energy crisis and of course climate change. These urgent issues seek expression through an art that not only reflects these changes but more importantly can respond to them, to educate the art-going public, and ultimately to change people’s lives. The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture’s policy programme for 2030 exhorts museums to do just that: as the Museum’s Director Marja Sakari writes introducing the new collection display in her foreword to the catalogue of the exhibition, ‘(t)he values it sets for museums are community and interactivity, reliability and continuity, pluralism and democracy, courage and open-mindedness […] thereby creating opportunities for creativity, education, identity-building and understanding change’. And one important way to embrace those values is to present the canon of art history through concerns that are pivotal today, because to understand the past is to understand how we reached this point of the present, and to contemplate how we might take our next steps into the future.

So how did the Ateneum Art Museum go about exploring these pressing issues of our time in curating this new display; and more specifically how did the curators of the Central Hall’s theme of The Age of Nature create a display that goes beyond a specific narrative to invite viewers to join a conversation that can have a real impact on their lives and on the world today?

‘Our express purpose in the process has been to critically discuss the canon of Finnish art and radicalise the ways in which our collection is customarily viewed,’ Sakari writes. ‘From the outset, an important factor in the planning of the new collection display was making the curatorial process transparent and opening it to discussion.’ Aligned to this was a need for larger curatorial teams and a fresh look at involving external actors. Accordingly, over the winter of 2021–22, the Museum organised a discussion series, together with the Bildung+ project of the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra (an independent organisation which fosters research and co-operation in building sustainable futures) under the theme of ‘Perspectives on Time and Power’. The purpose was to consider how the Finnish National Gallery’s art collections can be viewed from the perspectives of climate crisis, identity and equality.

Featured image: Ferdinand von Wright, Pigs and Magpies, 1875, oil on canvas, 63cm x 83cm
Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen
Public domain. This image of a work of art is released under a CC0 licence, and can be freely used because the copyright (70 full calendar years after the death of the artist) has expired.

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