Museums, Nations and Migrations – A Conversation with Joanna Warsza, Peggy Levitt and Hanna Snellman Moderated by Terike Haapoja

Joanna Warsza is a curator and juror of The Next Helsinki competition. She is currently curating a project at the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum, a branch of the National Museum of Finland located in the Helsinki archipelago which focuses on rural architecture. The exhibition was commissioned by Checkpoint Helsinki, and includes works from artists Kader Attia; Natascha Sadr Haghighian with Jumana Manna and Haig Aivazian; Liisa Roberts; and Annika Eriksson.

Hanna Snellman, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Professor of European Ethnology at the University of Helsinki; Hanna Forssell, Head Curator of Education at the National Museum of Finland; and, Peggy Levitt, Chair and Luella LaMer Slaner Professor of Latin American Studies at Wellesley College, are currently working on a project entitled, “The New Helsinki? Immigration and the National Museum of Finland”1 about how to make Finnish museums more accessible to new immigrants.

Terike Haapoja: Welcome, Joanna Warsza, Hanna Snellman, and Peggy Levitt. Peggy, what was the initial inspiration for the proposal you submitted to The Next Helsinki competition?

Peggy Levitt: As a scholar of migration, I spent many years looking at how people become part of new places, and at the same time, how they remain active in the economics, politics, and social life of the countries that they come from. No matter where I looked, from Brazil to the Dominican Republic, from Pakistan to India or Ireland, I always found that people lived transnational lives. But the pension, health care, and education systems they depended on are not transnational.

People live aspects of their lives that cross borders, but the social safety net meant to protect them does not. That's what brought me to study museums and the role they play in creating successful communities: when you look at the history of museums, they have always been important creators of nations and national citizens; when the Louvre first opened its doors to the public, it helped create the French nation by putting objects, traditions, and customs on display that the people could all recognize as their own.

In my book, Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nations and the World on Display, I asked whether museums create global citizens and whether they help us embrace diversity nationally and even globally.

Finland is going through a phase of heightened migration. Even though migration is a relatively minor phenomenon in Finland compared to other European countries, I thought it would be interesting, with the Finnish National Museum about to reinstall its permanent collection, to see how cultural institutions were being used—or not—to facilitate that process. Would newcomers to Finland see themselves on the walls of Finnish museums? If they were allowed to use the collection, what stories would they tell with the materials there? I was inspired by a project I had seen at the Tate Britain called Tate Encounters directed by Victoria Walsh and Andrew Dewdney, who had done similar work with students from London South Bank University.2 I wanted to see if that kind of encounter could be replicated in other settings.

Terike Haapoja: And what was the outcome? Can you give an example of how things have been re-read?

Hanna Snellman: We are still in the early stages of this project. The National Museum is planning how to reinstall the permanent exhibition, which has involved conversations with the community. My impression is that the work has also been sidetracked because of the refugee crisis. The museum wants to work with the refugees who are coming to Finland.

But we hope to invite ten students from the University of Helsinki with immigrant backgrounds to work on the project. The exhibition will be finished in 2018 when the state of Finland celebrates its centenary. The project is unique in Finland and interesting on an international scale.

Joanna Warsza: I’m working with the artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian, who is German-Iranian, on a similar project. Seurasaari is a collection of rural houses from the beginning of the Finnish national project3 that were found and selected by ethnologists and students and brought together from regions across the country.

Natascha invited Jumana Manna from Palestine and Haig Aivazian from Lebanon—both of them places where houses are regularly subject to permanent erasure. Manna and Aivazian are now working in Seurasaari, a place where not only houses, but even the whole landscapes, have been dismantled and carried a long way by boat, in order to be preserved.

PL: I traveled around the world to look at how museums are balancing the imperatives to create both national and global citizens, and they are all struggling with it. Museums have not kept pace with the demographic changes the whole world is experiencing. They are slowly realizing that if they don't do something to make what happens inside their doors look more like what's happening outside, then they’ll be out of business.

Greater diversity means not just getting a wider variety of people to come into museums but also mixing up what gets put on display and who makes these decisions. In a place like the United States, where most museums are privately funded, cultural institutions depend upon visitors and donors for support. Instead of the white upper class elites who funded museums in the past, you have to cultivate a whole new set of visitors and museum professionals.

TH: How do you see this from the perspective of art museums in the current situation?

JW: Seurasaari is an unusual museum because it is an example of an institution that doesn't keep pace with changes in the world. Because it doesn’t keep up, we learn more about the historical evolution of the nation-state. It’s an island that exhibits an early point in the trajectory of Finland’s nation-building.

It was created as a place without conflict, a site of consensus with the aid of conciliatory rhetoric. It's all peace and harmony. And it's also very rural, because in order to help build the national culture of Finland, architects had to differentiate their designs from the bourgeois and the urban culture that was Swedish. The vernacular and the topography of this local architecture were united with the goal of being emancipatory.

PL: I think that's fascinating. Where a country is in the arc of its nation-building project or its world-claiming project also really influences how it uses its museums. In Denmark I heard a lot of people talking about the nation being under siege, and about the need to articulate an official canon and to preserve Danish peasant culture.

Since Denmark doesn't have any strong pretensions about being a global leader anymore, the Danish National Museum was charged with “preserving the nation.” In contrast, museums in Singapore and in Qatar are using cultural institutions to create nations but also to insert them more prominently in the region and, possibly, the world.

JW: Let me ask you Hanna: Do you think that this is a place where Finnish culture is performed? Is it still such a place? How do you see it?

HS: It's very popular, and a little more like a nature park, where you stroll around and enjoy the sea and the natural surroundings. I don't think people see Seurasaari as a museum so much as a place to hang out. If you go there on summer nights it is quite crowded, and there is a beach there where you can go swimming naked, the only such public place in Helsinki.

TH: I understand that the National Museum is in the process of changing the permanent exhibition. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

HS: Seurasaari cannot change that much. But the exhibition at the National Museum is much easier to update. It's a solid block building but what you do with the inside is up to you.

PL: What ends up happening within cities is a sort of informal division of labor. The museum directors don’t actually go around to each other and say, “Why doesn’t your museum do the nation and mine will do diversity,” but there is often an implicit understanding that each institution has a role to play in the urban ecology of culture. The discussions we are having regarding the National Museum and the roles of each of its branches reflects that division of labor.

But what museums do also reflects the diversity management regime in each country. That is, how does the nation speak about, categorize, measure, or remediate diversity? Is it an opportunity or a problem?

In the United States, we are very comfortable with embracing hyphenated identities. We say that we are Chinese-American or Mexican-American and that is how we take our place at the nation’s multicultural table. It is not a surprise then that we have museums devoted to the experiences of particular groups. The Museo el Barrio, in New York City, is a museum that started out being about the Puerto Rican experience and then expanded to include the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and is now about Latin Americans in general. It is a contested evolution.

But we need to ask ourselves what difference it makes when members of these groups see themselves on the walls of a “separate but equal” institution rather than on the walls of an encyclopedic museum like the Metropolitan Museum.

In Scandinavia, I think you would be hard-pressed to find museums dedicated to the experiences of particular groups. The same labels that empower and facilitate integration in the U.S. are seen as contributing to social marginalization in Sweden and Denmark.

HS: In Finland there is an additional division of labor between predominantly cultural museums and The Finnish Labour Museum, which is in charge of collecting materials dealing with immigrants. Of course, any other museum in the country might stage exhibitions dealing with immigrants as well. In the globalized world every museum should be inclusive and include immigrants both as far as collections and exhibitions are concerned.

TH: We have been talking a lot about the past and about museums as preservers of the past. What would you say about the future and museums in relation to the future? How should museums change to adjust better? What should their function be in relation to generating change for the future?

PL: I think there are two parts to your question: what museums should do and what museums have to do. When you look at the demographics of museum visitors, you tend to see older, white, usually female visitors. Many times, the galleries are empty in the middle of the week. They need to do something really different. Even if museums don’t want to, they are going to have to change if they want to stay alive.

I believe that museums are underutilized tools for helping to create successful diverse communities. They can do this by helping people understand diversity next door and by helping us understand how that diversity next door connects us to people and problems across the globe. They can also teach us about global problems, like climate change or human trafficking, for which we are all responsible.

I don’t think that national museums are going to disappear, any more than nations are going to disappear. But we might begin to understand that nations no longer end at their borders. And we might also begin to understand how international influences have always shaped our nations and what that means for how we look out or how we need to rethink each nation’s position in the world.

TH: How do you, Joanna, see this in relation to art museums which are also sites of representation?

JW: I think it's important for art museums to not get appropriated for different agendas—corporate- or entertainment agendas, for example. That is also why I am so interested in Seurasaari: it is a place that is not easy to appropriate. It remains classic in both a positive and negative way. Other museums sometimes find themselves with little to say about contemporary culture.

TH: Do you mean that they are being made to feel unnecessary or that they are actually becoming irrelevant?

JW: Look, for example, at the Gezi Park event during the Istanbul Biennale. The theme of the Biennale was art as an agent of social change. Right next door, a lot of social change was actually happening. And then the organizers of the Biennale, when pressed by some groups of artists, found they were no longer really needed, and I do understand and recognize this feeling. Suddenly as art curator you realize that you don’t have all the social tools, that you meant art and activism to be a lab for speculation, but not a direct connection to a political movement.

The Biennale authorities decided to cancel most of the public programs and to go indoors. It was useful because it made the Biennale and its organizers look extremely vulnerable and they had to rethink their tools. Without such crises, museums won’t feel pushed to rethink their functions and the terms and conditions under which they operate. It's interesting to look at these limited zones of interaction, like the response of New York’s museums to the Occupy Wall Street movement, or what happens when various institutions and biennales are boycotted. Those are the moments when institutions are shaken up and, and prompted to reform their protocols, but it doesn’t happen every day.

That is why I like the concept behind Checkpoint Helsinki: it emerged as an act of artistic solidarity, and yet, at a certain point, it was given institutional legitimacy. Checkpoint is exactly the outcome of such a shaky moment in which people said “okay I don’t agree with the things in the existing institutions,” and they go on to create this new entity.

Will it last or is it just a short intervention in the life of Finnish museums? We don’t know exactly, but it is interesting that it grew out of the common energy and we don’t want that energy to weaken, even though it is hard to sustain. And Checkpoint is the right model. When the energy wears off, you still have a back-up: you do have your own small institution that will continue to do the daily work. Checkpoint Helsinki is for me a step in the right direction of institutionalizing the revolutionary momentum of an art community.

1 Completed in 1910 and opened to public in 1916, the National Museum of Finland is the most significant cultural history museum in Finland in terms of the scale and quality of its collections, the museum’s history and its visitor numbers. It has always had a strong emotional link to nationalism from the outset. Its creation was tied to the aspirations of the Grand Duchy of Finland to detach itself from the Russification policy of the Russian Empire, and so the museum, under construction at the time, was subsequently named the National Museum of Finland when Finland became independent in 1917. Designed by Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren and Eliel Saarinen, the museum building is a key specimen of Finnish national romantic architecture as well as a significant 21st century National Romantic and Jugend style museum design on a European scale.


3 Finland became independent in 1917.