Finnishing school

Maurice Davies, 29.05.2013
Could we learn from Finland's approach to collections?
Last week I was briefly in Finland, as keynote speaker at the Finnish Museums Association’s annual conference.

My topic was disposal, which is still fairly novel in Finland – as it is in many European countries apart from the UK and the Netherlands. I spoke about UK museums’ increasingly active approach to collections reviews and curatorially motivated disposal.

I also spoke about the UK’s exceptional cases of financially motivated disposal. I explored why the current financially motivated disposal by the British Postal Museum and Archive appears to be going so well – and the proposed sale at Northampton seems to be going so badly.

People I spoke from Finnish museums were a little apologetic about their reluctance to dispose, especially as there’s a growing recognition of the undesirable costs of storing lots of items that are unlikely to be used.

The Finns might be behind the UK when it comes to disposal, but in other ways they are pioneers. They have devised a scheme called TAKO that could create a genuine ‘distributed national collection’ – something that has often been talked about in different parts of the UK, but has never progressed far.

Every museum in Finland was invited to suggest a collections area it would like to lead on – and almost every museum has proposed something. Even local museums are playing a part by, for example, leading on an industry that is, or was, particularly important in their area.

Museums with closely aligned, or overlapping, areas of interest will get together and agree the boundaries between them – and museums will also try to agree who will cover the gaps where at present no museum seems to be taking responsibility.

The agreement over collection boundaries will at first cover future collecting, but in time may lead to voluntary transfers of existing collections between museums.

It will be easier for people to locate and access collections. Kimmo Leva, secretary general of the Finnish Museums Association, points out that coordinated collections will have much better marketing clout.

The scheme also has the potential to save money as “not everyone needs to collect and document everything”. Organisations will concentrate on collections in their specialist area, borrowing things from each other when needed for displays and exhibitions.

It’s a voluntary scheme and has taken a few years to reach the current stage with museums signing up in principle. Someone from the government agency for museums, the National Board of Antiquities, which is promoting the scheme, told me she was taking a very long view and it might be 50 years before all the benefits are fully realised.

None of the talk of coordinating collections in the varied nations of the UK seems to have led to anything as concrete as widespread agreements between museums on collection areas.

As Arts Council England reviews the designation scheme, it might be interesting to look to Finland and consider whether designation could be designed so it could eventually become the basis of an ambitious, cooperative scheme of national lead collections.

In the long run that could be cheaper to run and, most importantly, bring real public benefits in terms of easier understanding and discovery of collections.

Comments

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Minna Sarantola-Weiss
Head of research, Helsinki City Museum
30.05.2013, 07:47
I am so happy about the kind comments of Maurice Davies.
The TAKO process has taken quite a few years – we started in 2009 – of discussions and more discussions but now I think we can proudly say that we have reached a national consensus of the benefits of a labor division in the field of accessions.

We would love to share our experiences with whoever interested.

Minna Sarantola-Weiss
chairperson of the TAKO working group