An event of critical importance to the Finnish cultural heritage is taking place this spring in the vestibule of the University of Helsinki Main Building. Three plaster sculptures, each more than two metres high and depicting Apollo, Artemis and the Laocoön Group, are carefully taken apart one piece at a time by a group of skilled experts.
“From a modern perspective, it may be difficult to understand what makes these plaster sculptures so significant,” says Curator Päivi Rainio of the Helsinki University Museum.
However, the three sculptures were the first of their kind to be acquired – in the 1840s – for the express purpose of being exhibited to the Finnish public. The University’s sculpture collection proper was established in the 1870s by C. G. Estlander, professor of aesthetics, and the majority of the acquisitions were made in the 1870s and 1880s. The collection has had a tremendous impact on Finnish sculpture, which was still in its infancy as an art form at the time.
High expectations were placed on the sculpture copies: they were to contribute to the revival of Finnish culture and the education of both students and the general public.
“Gaining personal experience of art was considered important for people’s general education. The collection became a cornerstone in the teaching of both art history and classical archaeology,” Rainio states.
Making plaster copies of classical and Renaissance marble and bronze sculptures was common in the 19th century in countries such as Italy, France, Germany and Sweden. The University’s first three sculptures were ordered from Paris, and they were initially displayed by turns at the University Library and the Main Building.
“The first three sculptures were also displayed at Finland’s first-ever art exhibition at the University’s Art Room, in an outbuilding located in the courtyard of the Main Building in 1845. The exhibition received considerable attention in the press,” Rainio says.
The acquisition of the Apollo, Artemis and Laocoön Group sculptures was a joint effort by the academic community, with students raising the necessary funds. The sculptures were purchased with 381 silver roubles, which equals to approximately €9,000 in today’s currency.
Survived WWII bombing raids – relocation is the next challenge
The sculpture collection of the University of Helsinki is also of international significance. Although European public institutions commonly acquired plaster sculptures in the 19th century, many such collections were damaged in the bombing raids of the Second World War. The collection of the University of Helsinki survived, partly through sheer luck: the three oldest sculptures were just 20 or so metres from being completely destroyed on the night of 26–27 February 1944, the third consecutive night of bombing in Helsinki, during the Continuation War (1941–1944).
“These sculptures escaped unscathed 75 years ago because they had been placed in the new part of the Main Building which was not destroyed in the bombing,” Rainio explains.
The sculptures will now face their greatest challenge since that fateful night, when they are moved to the Finnish Heritage Agency’s Collections and Conservation Centre for storage during the renovation of the Main Building. A total of over 200 works of art will be moved from the Main Building ahead of the renovation, but the more than 120 fragile plaster sculptures included in the art-historical collection pose the most difficult challenge.
“This is a unique project because it’s not often that such objects need to be moved,” Rainio states.
The relocation cannot be carried out by just anyone: the transfer of the art collection requires the expertise of curators and art logistics professionals. The safe disassembly of sculptures using special techniques is a time-consuming task. Bubble wrap and bin liners are not enough when you are safeguarding the Finnish national heritage.
“A plywood crate is tailor-made for each of the larger sculptures in the University’s property services workshop. Padded wooden supports are placed in specific parts of the crates to fit around the sculptures,” Rainio says.
The plaster sculptures were originally made by taking into account the properties of the marble or bronze artworks they were based on. Although 19th-century casting techniques were advanced and the plaster used is heavy and of high quality, the plaster sculptures are not as durable as the originals. The sculptures have also been damaged in conjunction with previous transfers. The aim now is to avoid new damage by planning the disassembly and relocation of the sculptures more carefully than before.
“Plaster sculptures are more fragile than most people think. For example, even the slightest touch can break off their fingers,” Rainio notes.
This has, in fact, happened several times over the years when enthusiastic art lovers have touched the fingers, which have then had to be reattached. People who have broken off a sculpture’s finger usually leave it at the foot of the sculpture, but this is not the case with certain other parts of the body.
“For some reason, people usually take the broken-off private parts of sculptures with them,” Rainio laughs.
Renovation of the University’s Main Building to begin in July
The sculptures are being relocated due to the renovation of the Main Building, which is due to begin this summer and is expected to last approximately two years. The renovation encompasses the old side of the building designed by C. L. Engel facing Senate Square as well as the wings on Yliopistonkatu and Aleksanterinkatu.
The purpose is to ensure the facilities meet the current needs of students and teachers. In addition, accessibility, indoor air quality and facility and fire safety will be improved.
The Senate Square side of the building will remain closed throughout this stage of the project. The sculpture collection will be placed in storage for the duration of the renovation, but the University’s art collections can be explored at the University Museum.
“The works on display at the University Museum include a statue of David and paintings belonging to the University’s portrait collection, which is the largest of its kind in Finland. The items exhibited at the University Museum include one of the best-known works of Finnish painting: Albert Edelfelt’s portrait of Nicholas II of Russia,” Rainio says.
Photos: Timo Huvilinna, Konservointipalvelu Löytö, Päivi Rainio