We visited the National Museum of Finland on the first full day of our recent stay in Helsinki – on the Sunday afternoon after we’d been to the Didrichsen Art Museum. It tells the story of Finland and its people, going right back to the pre-historic times and is definitely worth a visit to get an understanding of this relatively young nation.
The museum is in a distinctive Finnish National Romantic style building, designed by architects Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, and Eliel Saarinen, directly opposite the Finlandia Hall, close to the city centre. The exterior is rather austere and influenced by medieval architecture but with some Art Nouveau / Jugendstil touches.
Inside includes murals and other Finnish style Jugendstil features, particularly in the central hall and main staircase. It’s hard to do justice to the ceiling mural in the central entrance hall which depicts scenes from the Kalevala, the Finnish national myth.
There were some beautiful stained glass windows on the main staircase
The first half of the museum concentrates on the history of Finland from the Middle Ages to the foundation of the independent Finnish State in 1917 (after the Russian Revolution). It’s what I would call a traditional type of museum with lots of artefacts presented in a relatively static way with limited interaction. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting and we learned quite a bit about the history of Finland when it was a colony of Sweden and then, later, a Russian Grand Duchy.
The Medieval room
A recreated room from the 18th Century when Finland was a Swedish colony – the large white “cabinet” is a ceramic heater – needed in the depths of the Finnish winter!
The throne used by the Tsar during his visit to Finland when it was under Russian Imperial influence
The second half of the museum, covering the modern era from the beginning of the 20th Century to the present day was very modern in style with lots of interactive and hands-on displays including this interactive panorama of Helsinki at the end of the Russian era
and a “book” where the content was projected on to blank pages.
Nationalist feeling was growing in Finland at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century – which is reflected in the Jugenstil and National Romantic architecture so prevalent in Helsinki. After the fall of the Tsar, taking opportunity of the Bolshevik policy of National Determination, Finland declared independence on 6 December 1917. A Civil War followed between “Reds” and conservative “Whites”, the latter eventually being victorious.
At the beginning of WWII Finland was attacked by Soviet Russia leading to a bitter “Winter War” where the much smaller country defeated the Red Army, yet the Moscow Peace treaty ceded territory to Russia. There was a period of peace before war resumed in autumn 1941 when Russia was preoccupied with defending itself from the German invasion. Power relations had changed and The USSR were now allied with Great Britain, which resulted in the latter declaring war on Finland on 6 December., and Finland was supported by, if not allied with, the Nazis. I felt that although much was made of the hardship and heroics of the Winter War (quite rightly), this aspect was rather glossed over.
After WWII Finland was in a difficult position with a long border with the USSR and and had to balance carefully between the big powers maintaining a neutral stance. Like the other Nordic countries it developed a strong welfare state which largely remains today despite some economic difficulties and the rise of the Nationalist right who are now in Government.
Last year was the Centenary of the founding of the Finnish state and the final exhibit in this part of the Museum was a film show with an image of a Finn from each year from 1917 until 2017 projected on a large screen. Visitors could control both the direction of the film (past to present or vice versa) and the speed.
As we were about to leave the museum we realised we’d missed a whole section devoted to prehistoric Finland, so we went to have a look. Again, it was an interesting exhibition, well presented in a modern way.
Given it’s position in the frozen north, early population was sparse and life would have been hard so no major civilisations developed like in more temperate environments. However there was some migration after the last Ice Age and a number of artefacts were displayed, such as weapons and jewellery.
as well as displays and models about the environment and how people lived.
We enjoyed our visit to the Museum. There was more to see and we could have spent longer there, but we were starting to feel tired so it was time to head back to our hotel for a rest and to get ready to go out for something to eat.