The history of other than men and victors – Professor Tuomas Heikkilä contributed to scripting the updated permanent exhibition of the National Museum

Otherland, a new exhibition opening in the spring at the National Museum of Finland, examines Finland and the construction of a Finnish identity in the centuries from prehistory to independence. The exhibition broadens the understanding of what it means to be Finnish, which really pleases Professor of Church History Tuomas Heikkilä.

“For a scholar, it’s an extraordinary privilege to take part in renovating and refurbishing Finland’s ‘official display window to the country’s history’. Through the exhibition, research-based knowledge gets to exert immeasurable influence,” says Tuomas Heikkilä.

Museum visitors include children and adolescents, who will be the decision-makers, voters and influencers of the future. This is why Heikkilä considers the perspective museums provide on past values important.

“Through a large share of its history, Finland has been a part of something bigger, with the majority of people actually composed of different minorities. Familiarity with history helps understand, for example, bilingualism or the fact that success has stemmed more from open-mindedness and tolerance than from navel-gazing.”

"Through the exhibition, research-based knowledge gets to exert immeasurable influence."

Alongside Heikkilä, author and theatre director Juha Hurme is among the exhibition’s script writers. In addition, Heikkilä has collaborated closely with Project Manager Päivi Roivainen from the National Museum, who heads the exhibition update project.

Finnishness is a construct

The Otherland exhibition depicts how the area between Scandinavia and Russia became Finland. While the exhibition provides a certain image of what it means to be Finnish, Tuomas Heikkilä points out that identities are always constructed.

“The Finnish identity has been established over a long period of time on the basis of, among other things, language, the gene pool and Finnish appearance. Everything told about history through research or museums builds the historical identity of readers or audiences. A nationalistic way of perceiving Finnishness is only one interpretation among many, and by no means the right one.”

According to Päivi Roivainen, Finnishness as a concept is a fairly new one in its current form.

“Nation states are a new phenomenon overall in terms of the period observed in this exhibition. Across history, people have usually identified more with local communities than with the state. Nationalism was born as an international phenomenon, to which the response also in 19th-century Finland was to look for shared Finnishness.”

“Finnish language in particular was a factor unifying Finns and separating them from others – even though there was a vast number of Finns who spoke something other than Finnish in Finland at the time,” Heikkilä adds.

Heikkilä is delighted by the notion of Finnishness becoming increasingly permissive and accurate, or broader. The boundaries are not black and white. Instead, you can find colours by scratching the surface. It is these colours that the Otherland exhibition wishes to bring back into view in the history of Finnishness, which is why a large number of experts and communities were also involved in planning the exhibition.

“In designing exhibition content, we have had conversations with, for example, groups of children, history enthusiasts, the Ruskeat Tytöt community and the Vammaisuuden vaiettu historia (‘The silent history of disability’) project. Additionally, the museum guides, who are in constant contact with visitors, have provided their views on the exhibition content,” Roivainen says.

Visitors come face to face with themselves in the exhibition

History is always written by the victors.

“The victors choose what to highlight and what to suppress. In other words, what is carried over from history to our time is not the result of coincidence, but the work of underlying conscious forces. This is good to realise when reading history or visiting a museum,” Heikkilä notes.

“Now, we are increasingly putting forward humanity as well as the stories of women, children and various minorities."

Traditionally, history writing and National Museum exhibitions as well have emphasised a certain narrative, the stories of rulers and the powers that be, and masculine military history. Heikkilä describes it as whitewashing based on a single truth. Such a slice of past events and lives is, however, extremely narrow and black and white, and not necessarily engaging or identifiable.

“Now, we are increasingly putting forward humanity as well as the stories of women, children and various minorities. Some of the subjects are sensitive, which is why we try to show the same respect to all groups of people and beliefs. At the same time, we are redefining the role of the National Museum,” Roivainen says.

For instance, war is not examined as a heroic legend. Instead, it is put back into its place as one scourge among others.

A selection composed into an exhibition

Much like science's ability to self-correct, museums have the ability to revise their writing of history. According to Päivi Roivainen, the policy of the National Museum of Finland is that, instead of contenting itself with presentation of the collections, its exhibitions take stands and offer viewpoints.

“Internationally too, museums have recognised the need to exhibit difficult history, such as slavery and racism.”

“Even with the will to take up issues, there are groups and aspects that are hard to capture through objects or written sources. The things that have been considered worth preserving have been filtered and have varied throughout history,” Tuomas Heikkilä points out.

For example, the collections of the National Museum of Finland do not contain any objects related to the religious beliefs of the Tatars or the Romany culture.

In a church history course given by Heikkilä in autumn 2019, students had the opportunity to brainstorm ways in which mediaeval religious life could be presented in the exhibition. Contrary to modern expectations, there are no virtual characters journeying through history on offer.

“Our solutions are more timeless: we guide the visitor to the objects and provide them with a good script. Careful consideration has been given to the digital solutions employed in the exhibition. Solutions that may seem straightforward today can become outdated over the course of the exhibition.”

Multivoiced collaboration behind the exhibition

As a researcher and teacher, writing the script for an exhibition was a new experience for Heikkilä.

“My fantasy about collaboratively writing a great story of Finland and being Finnish quickly fell by the wayside. There was more discussion than writing. A shared voice was found by working on ideas and texts in groups of varying composition. The core of the matter had to be captured concisely, while also taking the audience into account. That was challenging for a researcher accustomed to long texts.”

In addition to the collaboration of the scriptwriters, the exhibition is founded on the joint efforts of, among others, architects, collection specialists, curators and the crew who mounted the exhibition. Päivi Roivainen says that cooperation is the thread running through the entire project: the script, facility planning and decisions on objects to be exhibited were completed in an interactive process where consideration was given to tolerance and different voices. The lofty goals of the exhibition are accompanied by strenuous effort.

With their values, the University and the National Museum of Finland largely strive for the same things, making collaboration easy and giving substance to the core duties of the University.

“This is exactly the reason why there are universities in the world: through the exhibition, knowledge becomes education and gains more leverage. On the everyday level, this means teaching, research and public engagement, as well as science education to boot: that’s all the threads of the university institution in one,” Tuomas Heikkilä sums up.