Skip to main content

Finland's Very National Museum


Museums may seem like neutral institutions or curated records of past events and people, but they really each have an agenda of some sort, and in some cases it's pretty explicit. That's certainly the case at Finland's National Museum in Helsinki.


Its collections are designed to present a national history for a people whose history until only two centuries ago wasn't really the history of a 'nation,' and whose building itself was intended to display a new national sense and pride at a time when Finland was preparing become an independent nation for the first time.


Designed by a group of architects led by Eliel Saarinen, the building is a prime example of the 'national romantic' style in Finland, combining forms that evoke medieval Nordic castles with designs that are linked to the popular Art Nouveau developing in the same period.


The museum's exhibits start, appropriately enough, in the very beginning, with relics and lifestyles from the Stone Age


Many of the exhibits ask provocative questions or offer provocative thoughts about how we view the past, and ourselves.


Christianity came late to the areas we now know as Finland; before the so-called Northern Crusades of the 12th century, which conquered and converted many of the various peoples living east and north of the Baltic Sea. Even then, it was some time before 'Finland' came under Swedish rule, though never becoming Swedish.

20230903_11293620230903_113037Punishment stool, for offenders against church rules


For most of the Finnish tribes, life was rural and agricultural. Maps, the museum points out, were not only miracles of scholarship and technology, but were the realm of scholars, seafarers and warlords. Ordinary people were aware of their immediate surroundings, but had little idea of what lay beyond their horizon.


Several times, the area changed hands in a variety of wars, passing into Russian control and out until finally, during the Napoleonic Wars, Sweden was forced to cede it to Russia—which, somewhat ironically, is the real beginning of Finland as a nation.


Sure that he could not win them to become Russian, but anxious to erode any ties they felt to Sweden, Tsar Alexander I declared his new territory to be the Grand Duchy of Finland, and himself the Grand Duke.

20230903_11571620230903_114944Throne of Alexander I as Grand Duke of Finland

When the Russians took over, there was no written history of Finland as a distinct place, and more than half the population spoke Swedish; there was almost no literature in Finnish, although it was widely spoken. Alexander encouraged Finnish feeling, and authorized creation of a Finnish currency. Finland went from being an ignored outpost of Sweden to a place 'under the wing' of the powerful Tsar.


Aside from creating currency and taking a tolerant, even fostering, attitude toward Finnish customs, language and churches, Russia also created a Finnish state structure, complete with a Senate and sizable government buildings, including new cathedrals, in their new capital: Helsinki. Formerly a small village, Helsinki was picked because it was a natural port and already had Swedish-built sea fortifications. The Tsar forced the move of the university and other institutions from Turku to Helsinki, and also forced the entire population of a number of towns to relocate to populate the new capital.


A couple of Tsars later, the honeymoon was over. Under Alexander III, some of the privileges and powers of Finland came under stress, with Russia ignoring decisions of the Finnish Senat and restricting aspects of its economy. The period of the 1870s and on saw a "Russianization" campaign, culminating in the 'February Manifesto' of 1899 that set aside Finnish laws, ended the Finnish military and prepared to fully annex Finland into Russia.


Not surprisingly, it also marked the culmination of the growing nationalist feeling among Finns, a strong enough movement that the full integration never took place. Among the pieces fueling the pushback was the 1899 painting above, used as a poster. It shows the double-headed Russian eagle attempting to snatch the code of laws from the Maid of Finland.

20230903_121537Losses, migrations and refugees of the World War II area are shown

Then came the Russo-Japanese War that weakened Russia and World War I, which ended the rule of the Tsars, and then independence for Finland—at least for a time.

Independence in 1917 was followed by a civil war, and then with Finland's twisting role in World War II, which for Finland was three wars: The Winter War in 1939 against a Soviet invasion; the Continuing War in 1941 when Finland allied with Germany against Russia and the 1944-45 Lapland War when the enemy was Germany.

20230903_122032A wall of Finnish presidents. The portraits are actually video clips!

In the post-World War II era, Finland played a neutral role, keeping its independence from its powerful neighbor to the east, while acting in many ways with the west. Internally, it took years to heal some of the divisions within the country, including war crimes trials against some of its former leaders. The museum's explanations are reserved but clear, without many images.

20230903_12252120230903_122646Finland's economy grew during the post-war era, and became much more industrial in order to produce the goods and funds needed to pay reparations to the Soviet Union, which also took several portions of eastern Finland. The process of growth wasn't always even, and there was significant migration to other Nordic countries, especially Sweden.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was an economic blow for Finland: it abruptly lost much of its trade with its biggest customer, leading to breadlines like the one above. Some say only the success of Nokia phones kept the Finnish economy alive for a while! The economy has found a more even footing since Finland joined the EU in 1995.


Further exhibits take a fond look at what it describes as "sauna-crazy Finns," who are the historical inventors of the sauna, nearly 2,000 years ago. In early years it served even more purposes, including a venue for childbirth. Other aspects of more modern culture are also covered.


And, at the end of my visit, an exhibit of recent work by recent Finnish artists...



Images (36)
  • 20230903_111006
  • 20230903_111022
  • 20230903_111400
  • 20230903_111526
  • 20230903_112153
  • 20230903_112349
  • 20230903_112406
  • 20230903_112410
  • 20230903_112803
  • 20230903_112843
  • 20230903_112936
  • 20230903_113037
  • 20230903_113132
  • 20230903_113203
  • 20230903_113540
  • 20230903_114029
  • 20230903_114944
  • 20230903_115527
  • 20230903_115602
  • 20230903_115716
  • 20230903_115759
  • 20230903_120127
  • 20230903_120434
  • 20230903_122032
  • 20230903_122235
  • 20230903_122521
  • 20230903_122646
  • 20230903_122737
  • 20230903_122755
  • 20230903_122926
  • 20230903_123939
  • 20230903_124248
  • 20230903_124420
  • 20230903_124535
  • 20230903_124552
  • 20230903_121537

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Add Comment

Comments (1)

Newest · Oldest · Popular
Link copied to your clipboard.