The Helsinki City Museum operates a Worker Housing Museum. It opened for the season on May 5, so yesterday I went to check it out with a Finnish friend who lives nearby. It’s in Kallio, a working-class neighborhood just to the north of Helsinki Centre.
The museum is part of a block of four buildings with a central courtyard, built by the City of Helsinki to house city workers. Visitors can step inside nine one-room apartments, each furnished to represent a different time period from 1910 to 1985. Here’s an apartment that housed a widow and her seven children, in 1925:
HCM researched the families that actually lived in these “stove rooms,” and their stories are presented both by a museum guide who accompanies you through the building and in panels on the door of each apartment. A tenth “hands-on” apartment contains furnishings that kids can try out for themselves:
You even get to see the toilets, in the basement (they were hooked up to the city sewer system in the 1940s):
Jari Karhu, head of visitor services for the Helsinki City Museum, tells me that the Worker Housing Museum does not get a lot of visitor traffic—about 7,000 people during the 2009 summer season. But those who do make a special trip to Kallio give the museum higher than average marks in visitor satisfaction surveys: 88% rank it a 4 or a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5.
The interpretation is quite effective, and I was of course immediately reminded of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. The Tenement Museum is much-lauded as one of the more innovative and successful museums in the U.S., and it’s also one of my personal favorites. The experience there is more immersive than Helsinki’s Worker Housing Museum but the two operate in a similar vein. Since Americans tend to think that we are the center of the universe, and since the Tenement Museum is so well-known in the museum field, I assumed it served as a model for what I saw yesterday. But it turns out the Worker Housing Museum opened in 1989, a full three years before the Tenement Museum started showing its first restored apartment. That’ll teach me.
For much of the 20th century the typical historic house museum provided visitors with a window into the lifestyles of the rich and famous: fancy mansions, fancy furniture, fancy clothes, fancy parties. But that’s not how most of us have lived—historically or today. The Worker Housing Museum and the Tenement Museum are part of a movement to democratize history by interpreting the lives of ordinary people. First, the idea is that all history matters. But it’s also that, instead of expecting visitors to live vicariously through upper-class history that only represents a tiny fraction of the population, museums of everyday or working-class life build a more direct—and therefore more powerful—link with the past by presenting historical characters that visitors can actually relate to: the common folk. Countless visitors make connections between their tour of the Tenement Museum and their own family’s immigrant story. And indeed, a similar connection happened when I was at the Worker Housing Museum: Ulla, my Finnish friend, saw a cupboard in the 1940s apartment that was like one in her parents’ home. She was struck by it, and took care to explain to me its special pull-out board for kneading bread.
The Helsinki City Museum’s commitment to interpreting the everyday life of ordinary Helsinkians doesn’t stop with the Worker Housing Museum. In my conversations with the HCM staff, it’s a theme that has come up again and again as their highest priority. For instance, when Elina Kallio, curator of collections, gave me a tour of HCM’s two collections storage centers, we saw example after example of commonplace items. Elina talked about wanting to collect objects that evoke the kind of sense memory Ulla had—objects from your grandparents’ home, or your working experience, or from popular culture. Many city museums have good intentions when it comes to interpreting everyday life, but they don’t have the artifacts to support such an approach; their collections were built at the turn of the 20th century, when historical institutions typically only cared about preserving the history of privilege. That’s why it’s so important that HCM is making a concerted effort to comprehensively collect the everyday experience of Helsinki. This is a resource-intensive process, but it is HCM’s way forward nonetheless.
A few days after my tour with Elina I had a similar conversation with exhibition curator Jari Harju. We talked about projects they’ve undertaken to document everyday life in Helsinki’s neighborhoods, including one in Myllypuro, on the northeastern side of the city, that involved artifact acquisitions, photo-documentation, and interviews with residents (museum director Tiina Merisalo wrote an essay about the Myllypuro project for the publication City Museums as Centres of Civic Dialogue that you can download but keep in mind that it’s a 226-page PDF). In addition, right now Jari is working on a project to document poverty in Helsinki. It’s part of a collaboration with the Luxembourg City Museum and Minnesota Historical Society, among others. Many city museums still pretty much ignore their poorest residents, so this project is ahead of the curve.
I think one of the major reasons that in the 20th century city museums failed to establish a place for themselves at the very center of urban life is because their version of history only took into account a narrow slice of the cities they claimed to collect, preserve, and interpret. As Tiina Merisalo asks in her essay about Myllypuro, “Whose image of the past is the museum reflecting and shaping? Whose city are we representing?” Like the Helsinki City Museum, many of these institutions realized the imperative for a more inclusive version of history as the 20th century was drawing to a close. Which leads me to three final comments.
First, walking the walk is a lot harder than talking the talk when it comes to representing everyday life, particularly when it involves the aforementioned resource-intensive collecting initiatives. So I’m impressed by the progress Helsinki City Museum has made but also concerned about how smaller city museums will manage to do the same, practically speaking, even if it is indeed the way forward.
Second, one of the reasons the Worker Housing Museum and the Tenement Museum are so striking is because the experience is intensely urban. Space is at a premium and thin walls separate neighboring families who constantly negotiate shared stairwells, courtyards, and toilets. So it’s not just the stuff of everyday life in the city but also the way one lives, with unpredictable situations and less personal space. Capturing this essential urban-ness—what makes city life different from life outside of cities—is an interesting challenge for 21st-century city museums.
And third, one of the reasons the Worker Housing Museum is such a special place is because the opportunity to step inside a one-room apartment that housed five people is rare and therefore memorable—if it were as ubiquitous as the typical upper-class historic house museum then we might get bored. Therefore, this is not a prescription for every city museum to create its own working class housing site and then call it a day. Each city museum needs to find its own creative, fascinating, and unique ways to use the everyday history it collects.
This post has gone on and on. I haven’t even touched on issues of ethnicity, which is tangled up with class in most cities (and yet in completely different ways here in Finland). I also haven’t discussed the difference between 20th-century history—the recent past—and, say, 17th-century history—the truly dead past. These are both important related topics but they will have to wait for another day.
In the meantime, the Worker Housing Museum, combined with the homemade blueberry tart Ulla served afterward, made for an excellent Sunday afternoon. I highly recommend them both the next time you are in Helsinki.