International opening: Helsinki City Museum, Finland - Museums Association

International opening: Helsinki City Museum, Finland

Eleanor Mills talks to Tiina Merisalo, the director of Helsinki City Museum, the newest addition to the Finnish capital’s booming art and culture scene
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Eleanor Mills
Helsinki City Museum is in the heart of the historic centre, which has been repurposed as a cultural quarter, in Finland’s capital city. Closed for renovation in 2014, the now-refurbished and restructured museum is one of the first steps in the Finnish government’s programme of investment in the arts sector.

The museum comprises five buildings, each constructed in a different era – the earliest in the 1750s, the newest just finished.

Museum staff have worked with city residents to develop the displays, and the result is an all-inclusive space. The displays start with an innovative time machine virtual reality experience, showing you Helsinki as it was 100 years ago. From there, visitors stroll through the city’s history via various displays: archival photographs create vistas, and there are clothes to dress up in and games to play.

Far from information overload, the museum provides an experiential way to learn about history, and there are plenty of places to sit down in, from period rooms to the wooden swing on the top floor.

What does the museum display?

Tiina Merisalo: We show the history of Helsinki, but we also have a general concept that the museum should touch your feelings and emotions, and that the displays should be easily accessible. People often say that museums should act as cultural living rooms – we have made that concrete here.

Why the redevelopment?

The city’s governing board understood that culture has a big effect on the economy and tourism, so there was government investment to develop it. We made the museum free a few years ago and visitor numbers multiplied.

There has been a boom in the museum field with the Helsinki Art Museum opening in 2015, our museum reopening this year, and the Amos Anderson Museum opening in 2018.

What’s your exhibition programme like?

The fourth floor is devoted to temporary shows on themes that touch emotions or that might be a bit difficult so we create discussion around these. At the moment we are showing the Museum of Broken Relationships, which displays objects from real relationships that people have donated. It’s an exhibition about love and loss. In the autumn we are going to do something about the smells of Helsinki, because fragrances are also linked closely to our emotions.

Why are there lots of areas to sit down in the main historical displays?

I’m so happy about these chairs everywhere. We didn’t have them in the previous museum, so people had to just stand or walk. The idea is that you can see things at your own pace – you can rest a little bit and then go deeper. You can just come here without an agenda and maybe visit the shop or go to the time machines. So it’s free in concept, free in admission.

What are the time machines?

We have used our photo collections, which start 110 years ago, in our time machine display. Visitors are transported into Helsinki 100 years ago through virtual reality headsets. I think it is particularly innovative to have used our collections like this.

There isn’t much text in the museum – why?

Displaying information in three languages – Finnish and Swedish are both official languages, and English is crucial – is a challenge so we need to have concise text. And nowadays people don’t have a long concentration span, so the short texts tell them the main point of the displays concisely.

What’s your collection like?

We have 450,000 objects in our collections, and our photo collection forms the core of it.

What is there for children?

We have an area entirely for youngsters called Children’s Town. It’s actually in the oldest building in the city, and is devoted to the youngest people. It used to be noisy before the renovation because of the 17th-century stone floors, but we have done lots of things to make it a nicer experience. Having a spongy floor is one; the city didn’t have asphalt or stone streets in the 17th century so we thought we would make it so you feel like you are stepping into mud. We have added content for adults and children to do together: you can choose a historical character to dress up as. The beginning of the story is written and the children write the end, then act it. We also made a boat with sacks as chairs for toddlers. It’s a calmer and quieter room where you can do things such as read stories and solve puzzles.

What’s next for the museum?

In 2017, we celebrate 100 years of Finland’s independence, so we will do something around that. We will start working with our other sites too, including Villa Hakasalmi, an 1840s neoclassical villa that we are developing the profile of. Right now there is an exhibition about the history of music in Helsinki and what music means to people here. We also manage one of the oldest wooden houses left in the city – an 1860s burgher’s house in the old city centre – which is under refurbishment and will open next summer.

What’s the idea behind your new logo?

It’s a capital H with a heart and it captures our vision: that everyone has the opportunity to fall in love with Helsinki.

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