Cataloguing and climbing – students of museology learn museum work at the Järnefelt residence Suviranta

This spring, master’s students in museology at the University of Helsinki have had a unique opportunity to learn museum work in a location that is not yet an actual museum. 

Suviranta was the home of painter Eero Järnefelt and his family in the artist community of Lake Tuusula in the early 20th century. Today, the house is occupied by Juhani Kolehmainen, the Järnefelts’ grandson, and his wife Anna-Kaisa Kolehmainen. The house and garden have been sold to the city of Järvenpää, but it remains a private residence. However, guided tours of the ground floor are available to the public on selected days in the summer. 

The agreement concluded with the city stipulates that the current residents have the right to live in the house for as long as they wish. For future museum operations, it is important to start cataloguing the objects found in the house and planning future events. 

“This project brings together the limited resources of a small museum and the University’s need to provide instruction in a genuine environment,” says Nina Robbins, university lecturer in museology.

“For the students, this has been a great opportunity to take part in planning the operations of a future museum, as well as to see and experience first-hand what such work entails.”

Robbins and Hanna Nikander, chief curator of the Järvenpää Art Museum, designed a course, completing extensive groundwork before the course began.

“For quite a long while, we weren’t even certain of gaining access to Suviranta, as the couple living in the house were initially unenthusiastic about letting students come to their home every Monday for a couple of months. Fortunately, we were able to persuade them, and they have eventually become eager participants in the project,” Nikander explains.

The course has students of museology from both the University of Helsinki and the Open University, in addition to whom there are a number of exchange students, as the course is given in English. 

“Even in a very heterogeneous group in terms of backgrounds and skills, everyone has been appreciative of what they get to do on this course. From the get-go, the students understood the unique nature of the location. Artist homes such as this that are yet to be turned into museums are rare,” says Robbins.

Help in object identification from the occupants

Already before their first visit to Suviranta, the students were divided into groups. One of the groups focused on the Suviranta brand and another group focused on the public activities that could be organized at Suviranta and its garden once the museum is fully up and running. A third group was tasked with writing a blog on the project’s progress. Three more groups concentrated their efforts on making an inventory of the objects found in the Suviranta studio, a more traditional task of museum work.

The objects to be catalogued had been chosen in advance by Hanna Nikander from the Järvenpää Art Museum. The students got to list the artworks hanging on the walls of the studio, boxes full of sketches and a large chest of drawers full of art supplies.

“We were able to touch and catalogue objects that had not been touched by anyone but the residents for decades,” student Aino-Kaisa Ahponen enthuses.

The students worked in the Suviranta studio on Monday afternoons in February and March, with half of the groups at Suviranta, while the other half did groupwork and attended brief lectures in the nearby Ahola, the house museum of Juhani Aho and Venny Soldan-Brofeldt. At midday, the groups swapped locations.

“Employees of the Järvenpää Art Museum gave presentations on museum work to the students, which was an added bonus,” Robbins says.

At Suviranta, Chief Curator Hanna Nikander provided help and support to the groups, guiding those involved in the inventory work in museum procedures and the correct level of precision.

The group working on the chest of drawers compiled a catalogue of 85 objects, which were not always easily identifiable after being kept in the drawers for several decades.

“That’s when we asked for help from the host. He was almost always able to tell us what a certain object was, who had owned it and what it was used for. It is likely that not all of the objects will end up at the museum, as there were also quite modern items, such as souvenirs, among them,” says student Kristel Markus.

Cataloguing requires precision and climbing skills

The artwork group was also helped by the host couple, since many of the 53 works in the studio were not signed. The paintings could not be taken off the walls, requiring some expert climbing from the students.

“Each artwork must be photographed and measured, and the materials and techniques used must be described,” explains student Anne-Maarit Partti

The artwork and chest of drawers group finished their work in good time, but the sketch group had their hands full. 

“There are a lot of sketches, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to come up with new kinds of written descriptions for nudes and horses,” the students laugh.

“But cataloguing the art has been interesting, as it has provided us with a window into the life of the Järnefelt family. There were even some sketches by the children,” Saini Cardoso explains.

A total of 170 sketches were catalogued.

The group working on public activities started its work by familiarising itself with the history of Suviranta and by talking to Juhani Kolehmainen, the current host. He shared with them stories told by his mother, painter Laura Järnefelt, of parties held at Suviranta and elsewhere in the Lake Tuusula artist community. 

“Our group’s goal was to come up with museum activities that would attract visitors and make them enjoy the experience,” Katri Lentosays.

The women of the artist community were educated and proficient in languages, conversing about the new trends of the time, such as feminism and Darwinism. Inspired by these women, the students designed a political discussion event to be held in the summer.

A good and fun experience 

The museum is pleased with the collaboration conducted with the University.

“For us, this project provided tangible benefits, as, in addition to the catalogues, we will have the blog entries at our disposal. The views expressed by exchange students are another unexpected benefit, and their work can be utilised, among other things, on our website and in future exhibitions,” says Hanna Nikander.

“It has also been educational for us – we weren’t expecting the students to have such a wide range of backgrounds and skills. All in all, this has been tremendously fun,” she adds.

The students are also appreciative.

“It has been an enjoyable experience: interesting and educational. We have got a taste of actual museum work, and also a peek into the home and work of great artists,” notes Saini Cardoso. 

The experiences were so positive that the project-based course in museology will focus on individual museum destinations in the future, too. Next spring, the students will familiarise themselves with the museums in the city of Hamina, with a particular focus on reviving museum activities in the Vehkalahti manor.