I was hanging out with a few of the staffers from the Helsinki City Museum the other day, and I asked them about their favorite places in Helsinki. First Tove Vesterbacka said anywhere along the harbor; to her Helsinki means water. She also mentioned Linnanmäki, the amusement park—it sits on a rocky cliff and the ferris wheel stands out in the skyline from many places in the city. Then Sari Saresto talked about her route home from work by bicycle, from city centre to east Helsinki. The landscape changes so much along the way, from the classical architecture of Senate Square, to the industrial buildings along Sörnäinen, to the island of Kulosaari, and then on to residential east Helsinki. Ulla Teräs said the wooden buildings in Vallila, near her home. And Jari Harju said in summer the Esplanade but in winter, anywhere inside with a good view of snow, trees, or frozen harbor. Which prompted everyone to agree that one’s choice of favorites changes with the seasons. Later I asked the same question of HCM director Tiina Merisalo. Like Sari, she described her commute over the Kulosaari bridge—this time by train and not bicycle—and how much it revealed about the development of the city. She also talked about east Helsinki, where she has raised her family—the neighborhood, the bike paths, and the old manor house. To her this is the Helsinki of real life, the part the tourists will never see. (more…)
Archive for June, 2010
I’ve seen two interesting open air history exhibitions this spring, a permanent (or at least semi-permanent) one in Alexanderplatz, Berlin about the fall of the Berlin Wall:
And a temporary (one month) one in the Kamppi plaza in Helsinki about Warsaw Pact countries and their efforts to shed Communism during the Soviet Union’s final years:
I watched a steady stream of people checking out both of these exhibitions. With the Kamppi exhibition, I think one of the reasons people stopped to investigate was that it presented an unexpected change to a public space that was otherwise very familiar. In other words, if you walk through Kamppi plaza every day on your commute and suddenly the landscape changes, you want to know why. I’m interested in the idea of inserting some public history into public spaces for just a month or two so that it becomes an event, as opposed to those permanent historic markers on buildings that start to blend into the background and almost become invisible over time. There’s also the concept of it being right in the middle of your path, instead of having to make an active choice to walk into a museum to see an exhibition. I’m wondering if this would be a good thing to try in Boston, perhaps at Quincy Market, or along the Esplanade?
While waiting for a bus the other day in Helsinki’s Hakaniemi Square, I snapped this photo of a plaque on an apartment building. In English the plaque reads “V. I. Lenin lived here 1917.” There are similar plaques on a few other buildings in Helsinki, and there’s a Lenin Park. There’s also a restaurant I’ve eaten at a few times, Juttutupa, that boasts in its menu of serving Lenin. Such tributes are not as ubiquitous as the “George Washington Slept Here” markers up and down the east coast of the United States; and they have attracted their share of controversy. But nonetheless Lenin does have a presence in Helsinki, particularly in Kallio, a neighborhood with a strong working-class identity.
You’re looking at a birds-eye view of the historic district in the port city of Rauma, on the southeastern coast of Finland. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991, Old Rauma consists of about 600 wooden buildings, a particularly high concentration of 18th– and 19th-century Finnish vernacular architecture. I was there on Friday for an expert tour given by Tanja Vahtikari. The photo was taken from the tower of Rauma’s 15th-century Church of the Holy Cross.
I know Tanja through the network of urban historians at the Universities of Helsinki, Tampere, and Turku. Tanja is about to complete her PhD dissertation on UNESCO World Heritage sites, and she is using Rauma as a case study. As we spent the day meandering through the old town, with Tanja pointing out sites of interest on each block, we had a meandering conversation about historic districts, heritage policy, and 21st-century compromises.
I just heard about the work of Eric Fischer, a programmer in the San Francisco area who has created a series of maps of major cities showing where people take photographs. Because the public photo-sharing websites Flickr and Picasa enable geo-tagging of the images people upload, Fischer was able to create maps that show the hot-spots—the places that are photographed by many people every day. This is interesting for my research because it could help city museums visualize the urban spaces that are most important to the public—the places that possess a high amount of social capital, the ones we want to remember.
So far I have mostly been writing about cities with a positive identity—the ones that plenty of people want to visit on vacation, the ones with bright futures. But what about declining cities, nothing-special cities, cities that get picked last at recess? How do history and museums fit into their cultural landscape?
I recently read an essay by Sally MacDonald, who worked on a team back in the 1990s to develop a new history museum for Croydon, a borough south of London (“Croydon: What History?” in Making City Histories in Museums, ed. Gaynor Kavanagh and Elizabeth Frostick, London: Leicester University Press, 1998, 58-79). MacDonald writes “Anyone reading this who has lived in London or south-east England will probably know what I mean when I say that Croydon has an identity problem. For some time now it has been the butt of jokes, regularly categorized in the press and media as the epitome of boring, faceless, soulless suburbia.” In surveys residents said they weren’t even sure it had any history. In fact, MacDonald’s team had such little faith in Croydon’s image that they actually planned to name the museum “Lifetimes” to prevent any negative associations with the Croydon name (since MacDonald’s essay was published it has become the Museum of Croydon). MacDonald saw the new museum as playing a role in changing Croydon’s identity. She goes on to say, “what people and politicians wanted amounted to the same thing. Almost everybody desired a proposal that would put Croydon on the cultural map, though many believed this would be impossible. In order to do this, Croydon’s museum had to be new, different, modern, daring, high profile, glossy, sponsorable, and popular. It would be a symbol to help market Croydon to a hostile outside world.” The museum opened in 1995 and was scheduled for a major retool in 1999. I’m hoping to visit in July and see how it turned out. (more…)
The photo above is for all my collections manager friends who like to check out other people’s work. In March I was lucky enough to get a tour of Helsinki City Museum’s main collections storage facilities from curator Elina Kallio. I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of their old cataloging system. Don’t you just love the hand-drawn pictures? They have card after card like this. Here are some more on the outside of storage boxes: