History of the Museum

Helsinki University Museum Flame was established in 2003 by merging several museums operating under the auspices of the University of Helsinki. Later on, the Observatory and the Art Room were also merged with the University Museum. The University’s collections, accumulated over centuries, have developed into a versatile, professionally maintained academic heritage museum with intriguing venues presenting the past, present and future.

The University of Helsinki has played an important role in the development of the museum sector in Finland. The Royal Academy of Turku had various collections in its possession, and the University’s historical and ethnographic collections became the beginnings of the National Museum of Finland. The origins of the current Helsinki University Museum Flame go back to the museums established during the 20th century.

Beginnings of the collections of the Royal Academy of Turku

The origins of Finnish museums can be traced back to the collections of the Royal Academy of Turku. Already in the 17th century the Academy began acquiring portraits of professors and chancellors to be hung on the walls of the Academy library, and in the 18th century it started accumulating collections of teaching aids, such as samples in the field of natural history, globes and coin collections. During antiquity, the Greek word ‘museion’ and latin ‘museum’ were, in fact, used to denote schools and libraries as institutions dedicated to the muses, or the goddesses, of arts and sciences.

The Academy’s collections accumulated through donations and acquisitions. The collection of natural history was based on Professor of Anatomy Spöring’s mineral collection that the Academy purchased in 1749.  In 1761 the Academy merged the various donations of medals and coins it had received into a numismatic collection. The origins of the collection of cultural history lay in the antiquities collected from the Ostrobothnia region and donated to the Academy by Israel Reinius, an assistant vicar from Laihia in Ostrobothnia.

The first work of art in the Galleria Academica, the Academy’s portrait collection, was the portrait donated in 1652 by Governor-General Per Brahe of Finland, who was also the Chancellor of the Royal Academy. Jochim Neiman, who is considered to be the pioneer of Finnish portraiture, painted a great number of professors in the 1650s and 1660s. Almost all these portraits were destroyed in fires that took place in 1738 and 1827.

Museums become established during the era of Finnish autonomy under Russian rule

In 1811 the Imperial Academy of Turku established the position of museum official, which was the first such position in museum practice in Finland. The primary duty of the museum official was to head and curate the museum of natural history, which included the ethnographic collection and the numismatic collection. While the Great Fire of Turku in 1827 destroyed a large part of the collections, a fair amount of the coin and medal collection was saved, buried in the ruins of the Academy building. Efforts began to be made to restore the collections through donations and purchases. For example, in the 1840s, the University acquired paintings by Alexander Lauréus into the numismatic and art collection. These paintings still form part of the University’s art collections. The new University Main Building in Helsinki, completed in 1832, had ample room for various collections.

In 1849 the archaeological and ethnographic collections were renamed as the ethnographic museum and a head was appointed for the museum.  Prior to the establishment of the State Archaeological Commission (currently the Finnish Heritage Agency) in the 1880s, all antiquities found around the Grand Duchy of Finland were preserved in the University’s collections.

Starting in the 1850s, the University’s collections were open to the public once a week in the University Main Building. These collections included the coin and medal collection, the ethnographic museum, the cabinet of physics, the zoological museum, the mineral cabinet and the museum of anatomy with its collection of bones. The collection of instruments at the Observatory was also open to public. The ethnographic museum and the mineral cabinet moved into the Arppeanum building in 1869, when Professor of History Zachris Topelius was in charge of the collections. Topelius upgraded the exhibition and the museum, and during his leadership it was renamed the historical and ethnographic museum – later abbreviated as the historical museum. The collections included ethnographic objects from Finland and around the world, ecclesiastical objects and antiquities.

On many occasions in the course of the 19th century, the University’s collections were publicly referred to as a national museum type of collection. The University took the initiative in advocating the establishment of a state-run national museum in the 1880s when its own facilities became too cramped for its collections. The National Museum of Finland was established in 1893 by merging the University’s historical and ethnographic museum, the collections of the Finnish Antiquarian Society and the ethnographic museum of the student nation associations. These collections were all related to the University, for the collections of the Finnish Antiquarian Society were amassed by University researchers and preserved on University premises, and students were naturally part of the University. Hence the University’s collections constitute the foundation and cornerstone of the National Museum of Finland and museum practice in Finland.

The National Museum of Finland was opened to the public in its newly constructed building in 1916. The collections of natural history remained in the University’s possession. The University’s coin and medal collection was transferred to the National Museum in 1920, but it was only in 2022 that its ownership was transferred from the University to the National Museum.

Development of current museum practice

Since the establishment of the National Museum of Finland, the University of Helsinki continued to accommodate a number of museums, but the preservation of the University’s own cultural heritage was non-existent for decades.

Finnish Museum of Natural History

The oldest of the University’s current museums is the Finnish Museum of Natural History, often referred to as Luomus, the acronym of its Finnish name. Its collections are based on the samples donated to the University of Helsinki in 1858 by the Societas pro Fauna et Flora Fennica. Today the national collections in natural history accumulate mainly through research projects, expeditions and donations. The oldest specimens in the botanical and mycological collections date from the 17th and 18th centuries and were saved from the Great Fire of Turku. The museum also houses the anatomical collection of bones collected by Professor Evert Julius Bonsdorff in the 19th century. The Finnish Museum of Natural History was established in 1988 by merging the zoological museum, botanical museum, geological museum and the laboratory of chronology. The museum maintains and curates Finland’s national collections in natural history that contain more than ten million samples and specimens.

Helsinki University Museum inaugurated in 2003

Helsinki University Museum was established in 2003 by bringing together the University’s several smaller museums. The purpose was to set up a single museum alongside the Finnish Museum of Natural History to showcase the history of research and scholarship. The merged museums included the museum of medical history, the museum of dentistry, the museum of veterinary history, the collections of craft teacher education and the University of Helsinki Museum. The new museum was housed in the Arppeanum building until 2014, and from then on, the museum exhibition was located in the University Main Building.

The museum of medical history was established in 1937. Its collections were on display on the top floor of the University Main Building, but were destroyed in the bombing of Helsinki in February 1944. In 1955 the Finnish Medical Association took the initiative in promoting the establishment of a new museum at the University. The objects collected for the museum primarily came from general hospitals and provincial hospitals around the country. The new museum in a courtyard building of the Surgical Hospital was opened to the public in 1970, and for a long time, the history of medicine was part of medical studies.

The museum of dentistry was established in 1979 when the Institute of Dentistry moved from Fabianinkatu to Ruskeasuo. Initially, the museum collection grew mostly with objects from the University’s dental clinic, but over the years the museum received a considerable number of donations from private dentists. The museum exhibition was opened in 1982 at the University dental clinic in Ruskeasuo.

The Finnish association of municipal veterinarians founded the museum of veterinary history to mark the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 1973. The association maintained the collections, made acquisitions and finally relinquished the reformed museum at its 100th anniversary celebrations in 1992 to the College of Veterinary Medicine, which in 1995 became the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Helsinki. The museum was then located in the building of the College of Veterinary Medicine on Hämeentie and relocated with the faculty to Viikki Campus in 2004.

The collections of craft science originated in the Helsinki institute for textile teacher education, which was merged into the University of Helsinki in the 1970s. The collections included practical assignments completed by craft teacher trainees and crafts-related equipment and utensils, the oldest of which dated from the mid-19th century. In the 1950s the collections started to be referred to as a museum and were assigned their own facilities.  Systematic cataloguing was also launched.

The University of Helsinki Museum was founded in 1978 to ensure the preservation of objects, valuable furniture and works of art as well as historic research and observation equipment related to the University’s history. As a hundred years had passed since the University had had a museum of cultural history, the new museum set out to salvage material that had accumulated during those decades. An exhibition displaying the history of the University and scholarship in general was opened to the public in the basement of the University’s Administration Building in 1983.

In addition, the University’s agricultural museum operated under the auspices of the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry on Viikki Campus until its accession to Helsinki University Museum in 2012. The origins of the agricultural museum lay in the collections accumulated by Professor of Agriculture Gösta Grotenfelt in the early years of the 20th century. The museum was located in a building designed by Professor Jussi Paatela in 1938 at the Viikki Teaching and Research Farm. The building suffered water damage in 2015 and consequently the collections were severely damaged by mould. However, the core exhibition could be salvaged and decontaminated and it was donated to the Finnish Museum of Agriculture Sarka in 2018. A small part of the collection remained in the University’s possession, such as the animal figurines by Anton Ravander-Rauas.


From Turku to Helsinki 

The Helsinki Observatory was built between 1831 and 1834. The building was designed by architect Carl Ludvig Engel (1778–1840) and Professor of Astronomy F. W. A. Argelander (1799–1875). A few years earlier, Engel had designed a new observatory building constructed in Turku, which Argelander then finished so that it could be used for observation. After the Great Fire of Turku, the University relocated to Helsinki. The new capital also needed a new observatory. 

Argelander had found a suitable location on the Ulricasborg hill (currently Tähtitorninmäki hill or “Observatory hill”). The building required an unobstructed view of the sky, but also had to be visible to the port because a time signal bag was dropped every day at noon from the mast of the Observatory’s Middle Tower to allow ships docked in the city’s southern port to check their chronometers. Correct timekeeping was essential for navigation.  

Model for other observatories 

Engel designed the Observatory as an “embellishment for the city”. The building came to dominate the Helsinki cityscape and constituted the southern terminal point of the city’s new north-south axis, Unioninkatu street.  

The difficulties involved in designing the building were compounded by new observation technology. A refracting telescope, which stood on a fixed mount and could be pointed in any direction of the sky, required a supporting structure in the form of a revolving tower with a rotating opening for observations. As many as three revolving observation towers were constructed on the roof of the Helsinki Observatory. Engel’s design of the Helsinki Observatory served as a model for the Central Astronomical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences at Pulkovo in 1839, which in turn was followed by observatories in various locations across the world. 

New tower and Carte du Ciel project 

In 1890 a tower for the double refractor, i.e., photographic telescope, was completed in the Observatory garden. This telescope was used for the international Carte du Ciel project. The tower was designed by Gustaf Nyström (1856–1917). In 1901 the wing accommodating a dark room was extended with a pavilion for observations; this structure housed a fixed photographic telescope directed at the celestial pole. 

The Observatory building has been renovated several times. In the large-scale bombings of Helsinki in 1944, the tower of the photographic telescope was badly damaged, but the Observatory itself was saved from severe harm. 

Later activity 

As the city grew, lights and smoke increasingly began to hamper astronomical observations. Observation activities were transferred in the 1970s to the Metsähovi Observatory in Kirkkonummi, some 30 kilometres from Helsinki, and later to international observation sites (including those in the Canary Islands and Chile) and observation satellites. 

In the student revolt of 1969, students demanded that the Observatory building be used for nothing but teaching and research. Their demand was satisfied, and the building’s professorial residence designed by Engel was converted into library and work facilities. Quarters were refurbished for the porter in the east wing and the west wing was converted into an instrument manufacturing and repair shop. For the Observatory’s 150th anniversary in 1984, the lecture room, the East and West Rotundas and the towers were renovated, and the Meridian Room was refurbished into an exhibition facility. 

The centre for astronomy 

The Department of Astronomy was closed in 2010 as a result of a reform of Finnish universities, but a division of geophysics and astronomy was established under the Helsinki University's Department of Physics on the Kumpula campus. Today the astronomers continue their work under the division of particle physics and astrophysics. The Observatory building was renovated between 2011 and 2012. 

The Observatory building now accommodates the Helsinki University Museum's Centre for Astronomy which is open to everybody interested in space and astronomy. The Centre for Astronomy especially aims to raise youth's interest in natural sciences. 

Art classes are a centuries-old tradition

The history of the University of Helsinki Art Room dates back to the 18th century. European universities in the 17th and 18th centuries employed a range of practice masters for the teaching of practical skills to the students. It was customary to supplement academic education with skills such as fencing, riding, music, dance and drawing. Determining when exactly drawing was first taught at the University is subject to interpretation, as the art of drawing had an established position at the University already in the 17th century with the engravers of the Royal Academy of Turku.

The first artist to teach drawing at the Academy of Turku was Johan Oppenort from Stockholm. This was as early as the academic year 1708–1709, but the Great Northern War (1700–1721) and the unsettled times following it meant a decades-long disruption in the Academy’s operations.

Uninterrupted art teaching has been offered to students since 1748. Initially, the students themselves paid for the teaching, but a drawing master began to receive an annual salary from 1803. After the University’s relocation from Turku to Helsinki, the permanent position of a drawing master was established in the 1830s. In Helsinki, the University’s drawing master was Pehr Kruskopf, followed by his student Magnus von Wright. At the time, the Art Room was located in the new Main Building of the Imperial Alexander University of Finland, designed by Carl Ludvig Engel.

Art rooms and artists

In 1870 the Art Room moved to the newly built Arppeanum building by the Senate Square. Arppeanum provided facilities for the collections of cultural history and the teaching of chemistry teaching and various practical skills.  The University hired Adolf von Becker as the new drawing master. He had studied in Paris, was an advocate of a modern artistic view and organised art teaching after international models. von Becker also attracted a great number of students, among them Albert Edelfelt, a student at the Faculty of Philosophy who completed basic studies in drawing. Adolf von Becker also taught students from outside the University and established his own private art academy in the facilities of the University Art Room. He also welcomed female students against a tuition fee. Among von Becker’s private students were such future artists as Helene Schjerfbeck, Helena Westermarck and Maria Wiik.

In the late 19th century, the Art Room changed locations a number of times until a new building for instruction in practical skill was constructed in the University quarter at Fabianinkatu 33. When the extension to the University Main Building was completed in 1937, the Art Room relocated to its top floor. In 1956 the Art Room moved to its current location in the Porthania building.

The Art Room teachers have included a number of renowned Finnish artists, such as Fredrik Ahlstedt, Eero Järnefelt, Väinö Blomstedt, Erkki Kulovesi and Åke Hellman. Alongside the Finnish Art Association’s drawing school, the University’s Art Room has offered basic instruction in the arts to many Finnish artists.