122. vuosikerta

Otherland and its Others – thoughts on the exhibition at the National Museum

Missä sinä kuvittelet olevasi?

Var tror du att du är?

Where do you think you are?


This is a central question in Toista Maata, the newly curated exhibition detailing Finland’s history (or perhaps Finnish history, or the history of people in Finland; the question remains somewhat open) from the early Middle Ages to the beginning of the nineteenth century.


The question is central not only because it is asked roughly in the middle of one’s walk through the exhibition, but also because it presents itself less directly throughout Toista Maata’s narrative. The question is lettered on the wall in a small, rather unassuming room in the exhibition, where a range of historical maps turn one’s perspective on the world upside down. It encourages visitors to find their own town either oddly at the edge of a map or – perhaps unexpectedly – right in the middle of it (as is the case for an 1852 postal map with Mikkeli, St. Michel, at its center). With respect to the maps, the question seems simple enough, but it replicates the rather more complicated and somewhat daring question that runs through the exhibition: What is this land we call Finland – or a nation more generally? If the status of a nation is, as the exhibition suggests, fluid and contingent, then where does that leave the “national museum” of a place that cannot simply be understood as the Finnish nation?


These are bold questions to ask in an institution that was so obviously designed to present a canonized narrative of the nation to its citizens.[1] A room marked “Finland,” the second-to-last room in the exhibition, makes visible the way in which that canonized narrative has been constructed in and through the museum, breaking through the fourth wall and laying bare the cultural work that has gone into the creation of “Finnish history” from the nineteenth century onward. The room contains busts of poets and storytellers, like Larin Paraske and Pedri Shemeikka, showing how the story of Finnish culture and history has been written by particular artists, at particular times. For regular visitors to this and other Finnish museums, these names may very well be old favourites, and the room therefore is somewhat ambiguous – it can be read as a celebration of the poets, folklorists, and artists of yore, the “greats” who made Finnish history. But in putting all these busts together, they also tell a story of exclusion, of the vanishingly small number of recognized “builders” of culture, who seem to be encased in a fixed story of nation-building. They also tell a story of change: two young musicians can also be found among the busts, Emilia Lajunen and Suvi Oskala, who composed and performed the music one can hear in the exhibition. These two new artists seem to embody the new story of the nation that the exhibition wants to put forward: one rooted in tradition, but one that is also alive and dynamic and open to renewal and change.


The overall message of Toista Maata, as its title indicates, is that other national narratives could be devised, that an “other land” can be stitched together from the objects, stories, and fragments brought together in the museum. The narrative of the exhibition itself, however, obstinately keeps pointing back to the canonized story of the history of Finland as a unified national past. This is perhaps more obvious to visitors like me: residents of Finland who have grown familiar with the country’s history, but who have not experienced its educational system and therefore have not internalized any canonical history of Finland to begin with. In many ways, Toista Maata does not so much imagine alternative stories, nor does it even highlight the contingencies of that story – rather, a large part of the exhibition is a counter narrative, a direct response to the national history of Finland, a debunking of what Finland’s inhabitants are expected to have internalized. It is self-consciously contrarian, and that contrariness is not always equally generative. The very first room of the exhibition sets the tone for this critical discourse: it pits national myth against documented history, unveiling Lalli to be an imagined hero of a nascent nation. This is an interesting stance to take, but also a slightly confusing one – because rather than offering an alternate reading of Christianization in Finland’s history, it presents the visitor with a mirror image of the country’s imagined history that ultimately still points back to the canonized narratives. We still end up imagining a history rooted in (foiled) conversion.[2]


Further on in the exhibition, we also are brought back to one of the more enduring myths about modern nations: that they represent a “people” united by a shared culture articulated through a shared language. The exhibition is at pains to show that the fluid political borders of “Toista Maata” (whether it is the eastern part of a Swedish empire or the autonomous western region of a Russian one) do not easily overlap with equally fluid language developments. The result is a curious and ultimately confusing, even misleading, representation of Finnic languages and Finnish dialects[3] on a series of rather complex maps that obscure more than they reveal. It is a pity that, in this room, the work of the many linguists and dialectologists that Finnish scholarship can pride itself on is rendered largely invisible. Rather than highlighting the changes in knowledge about languages in the soon-to-be-Finnish part of the world, the maps seem to suggest an increase in linguistic complexity or variety in the region, culminating in 1809. Even more curiously, further on in the exhibition we learn that “Finnish is the very own language of the Finns.” This not only stands in contradiction to the message that the exhibition seems to want to communicate throughout – that both “Finnish” (the language) and “the Finnish people” cannot simply be pinned down or readily defined, it also brings forth uncomfortable questions about ownership and language (if Finnish “belongs” to the Finns, can it be acquired by others?). The conspicuous absence of Finnish people whose first language is not Finnish is perhaps most palpable in this room, too. The interactive wall that accompanies this sentence, moreover, broadcasts a very different message, encouraging all visitors alike to play with the Finnish language and discover its singularities as well as its connections to other languages – offering etymologies and reflection on terms like “sisu” and “vittu,” but also the obviously borrowed “biologia,” for example.


This tension seems to run throughout the entire exhibition. Many of the information panels presenting the main narrative of the exhibition are either so general that they are almost meaningless – “Our planet is a globe-shaped garden” or “sin is a sombre word” – or else they seem at odds with, or even undermine, the narrative presented in the exhibited objects themselves. The carefully calibrated room presenting various sophisticated answers to questions of time and space is accompanied by the somewhat insipid statement that “Science is endless curiosity towards everything.” Whereas the exhibition itself mostly attempts to present plurality, diversity, and a range of concrete and specific ideas, experiences, and objects, the narrative provided to the casual visitor is one of universality. As more than one of my students who visited the exhibition articulated, many come away from their visit with the idea that “we are all human, after all,” a sentiment rooted in notions of equality, perhaps, but also generic and unable to provide the alternative stories that Otherland seems so keen to suggest. The visitor who seeks out such alternate narratives can certainly find them in Otherland, though. They are present in the portrait room, for instance, where one can choose to be included in the gallery of the good and the great of Finland,[4] but one can also find Rosa Clay, who in current parlance could be described as an Afro-Finnish teacher and choir director.


Such finds are scattered throughout the exhibition, which constantly intermingles objects of grandiosity and domesticity, the stories of self-taught book binders and noblemen, with the words of J.V. Snellman placed next to those of Siina Savijoki/Rinne, an uneducated but literate craftswoman. It is also present in the room dedicated to science, which juxtaposes complex instruments like the tellurian with simpler objects like small, handmade calendars that were carried around in various people’s pockets. For me, it is in these smaller gestures of specificity that the exhibition is effective in subverting canonized national narratives, much more so than in the theatrical compositions representing daily life, or the grander gestures of the main narrative – where the turn towards a language of inclusion sometimes feels wooden or tacked on. Many of these more evocative subversive objects are still relegated, quite literally, to the spatial margins of the exhibition. A rather intriguing collection of knitted mittens, organized by region, for example, is hidden behind the imperial throne, while a torah sits to the side in a room focusing on Christianity. But they are there for the careful observer to find, and in many ways their position on the sidelines, quite literally, is reminiscent of historical practices of marginalization.


All in all, Toista Maata’s overriding goal of subverting accepted and canonized narratives of national history is for the most part successful. The exhibition lays bare some of the cultural and political work that has created such a narrative in the first place (and in which the national museum itself has played an important role, as the exhibition recognizes). In both its scenography and curatorial practices, obvious care has been taken to expand the range of identities and experiences represented in the museum. Like any move towards diversity of this kind, those attempts have remained imperfect – the room representing families, for instance, is rather stubbornly heteronormative in its imagery, and disabled experiences are barely represented. But this exhibition goes a long way towards counteracting the usual homogeneity that accompanies national histories in their most established institutions. The politico-philosophical reasoning that seems to be behind this move towards diversity – the notion that Finland has not only always been diverse, but also that such diversity is rooted in a universal sense of humanity – is less convincing to me. Ultimately, the narrative presented here sometimes comes uncomfortably close to political self-representations of Finland as a model modern welfare state. For all its subversion of heroic national histories, Toista Maata cannot quite help pointing back at the nation state in this sense, too: it suggests that the seeds of the diversity and equality currently valued as part of the Finnish national “brand” were sown in pre-national but somehow already past Finnish societies. The alternative story of Finland that is presented at the museum therefore appears to be an imagined ideal to live up to rather than a representation of the past – a laudable ideal, but one that shows the museum’s difficulties in wrestling itself free of national ambitions, even in an exhibition devoted to dismantling national narratives.


Author Josephine Hoegaerts, Associate professor of European Studies at the University of Helsinki.

The Finnish translation of this review was published in Historiallinen Aikakauskirja 120:2 (2022), 247–249.


[1] Rather fittingly, the founding of the museum, like the story of the nation, slightly precedes independence and the official establishment of a Finnish nation state.

[2] In the past semester, while offering a course on “History and Memory,” I have also solicited student reports on this exhibition. I will be referring to some of their opinions (anonymously) throughout this review. The story of mythologized interactions with the Christianization process proved to be especially confusing to many of the course’s international cohort.

[3] Exactly why they are viewed as distinct remains unclear in the exhibition.

[4] This is mostly an amusing feature that invites visitors, and particularly children, to feel included in the exhibit and, by extension, in the community that the exhibition represents. It also draws a connection with the similarly devised “you could be the president one day” photo booth that is part of the “Story of Finland” exhibition. Adding one’s own face to a portrait gallery is a compellingly personal way to engage with history – but it also presents a mode of inclusion that is not quite available in real life. Very few visitors to the museum are likely to have ancestors who were grand enough to have commissioned a portrait in the 17th-19th centuries; likewise, while many might be able to imagine themselves as the president of Finland, only natural-born citizens qualify (excluding any number of children who would otherwise identify as and be understood as “Finnish”). This invitation to imagine oneself as a member of high society, or as potentially “in charge,” is also somewhat at odds with the rest of the exhibition, which is much more concerned with issues of daily life and the importance of a variety of “ordinary” people and with providing a counternarrative to heroic great men.


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