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Posts Tagged ‘Helsinki’

Porthania Balcony

A new exhibition opened this week in Helsinki City Museum’s main building on Sofianinkatu. Titled Mad about Helsinki, it focuses on favorite places in the city, some well-known and some off-the-beaten-path, as determined through a recent survey of city residents. According to Helsinki City Museum’s website, “The exhibition presents these favorite places in the context of Helsinki’s past, making these beloved locations even more fascinating by giving them historical depth.” An accompanying website organizes the favorite places by categorygreen spaces, cafes and restaurants, entertainment, landmarks, harbor spotsand invites users not only to comment on the featured places but also post their own favorites. I lost myself in the website, thinking about my own special Helsinki places; then I had to stop because I miss Helsinki too much. I’m indulging myself by recognizing only one personal favorite, pictured above: the amazing view I had from my Porthania balcony, looking out across Fabianinkatu at the yellow dome of the National Library of Finland and beyond to the taller white dome of Helsinki Cathedral, which for four months served as my own personal clock. This view was simultaneously immensely commontwo major landmarks known to every city residentand also intensely rarefew people get to experience these buildings from this perspective.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking a lot with museum colleagues about the need for city museums to be hyper aware of current residents’ experience of their city–what they care about, what they worry about, and what prior knowledge and memories they bring to any interaction with the city museum. These personal connections to the city need to be the starting point for every project that a city museum undertakes. That’s why I’m thrilled to see my colleagues in Helsinki creating an exhibition that puts current Helsinki residents’ sense of place front and center. More of this, please.

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I make a lot of qualitative comparisons of city museums. But recently I’ve been thinking about quantitative comparison; what do the numbers say regarding which city museums are working and which ones aren’t? Annual visitation is one useful comparison, particularly annual visitation in relation to overall population, or annual visitation as compared with the art museums in the same cities. I’m slowly compiling the data on this—not every museum publishes their numbers, and there are a lot of variables in terms of how visitation is counted.

A few weeks ago I realized that comparing TripAdvisor reviews might also yield some interesting information. TripAdvisor reviews are posted by members of the general public, not by museum professionals like me (at least most of them aren’t posted by people like me), and unlike the visitation figures, all of the scores are crunched using the same formula. So I took a look at the TripAdvisor reviews for 32 city museums in Europe and North America. I mainly stuck to the ones I have personally visited, although I threw in a few additional ones (Ghent, Vancouver, Liverpool) I want to visit because they are generating buzz. First, a little context:

  1. Most of the reviews on TripAdvisor are posted by tourists, not locals. Occasionally a reviewer’s profile location matches the review city, but most of the time these are folks assessing their sightseeing experience while traveling.
  2. TripAdvisor reviewers (if their profile locations are to be believed) come from all over the world (TripAdvisor provides a Google Translate button).
  3. Fifteen of the 32 city museums each had 5 reviews or less, which means we have to take the scores with a grain of salt.
  4. Not every place in my survey is a spot-on city museum in the traditional sense (run by a non-profit organization or the local government, with a mission to preserve and disseminate the history of its city). I included a few outliers that offer city history exhibitions but don’t fit the standard mold (the for-profit Story of Berlin, for example).

With that background in mind, how did these city museums rate? On one hand, very well. 24 of 32 received scores of 4 stars or better, on a 5-star scale. There was only one score lower than 3 stars. This may simply mean that the kind of folks who visit city museums while on vacation, and then rate them, are the kind of folks who are predisposed to like city museums. The following museums scored a 4.5 (with number of reviews in parentheses after the name): Museum of London (104), Atlanta History Center (46), Story of Berlin (33), Museum of the History of Barcelona (29), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (28), People’s Palace/Glasgow (16), STAM/Ghent (5), Detroit Historical Museum (5), Stockholm City Museum (4), and McCord Museum/Montreal (3).

On the other hand, the TripAdvisor ratings suggest that city museums are rarely among the top things to do in their cities. TripAdvisor ranks all the attractions in any given city based on number and quality of reviews. Only 5 city museums ranked in the top 10 for their cities: Atlanta History Center (3/167), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (3/50), STAM/Ghent (5/27), Vapriiki Museum Centre/Tampere (9/26), and Turku Castle and Historical Museum (9/14). With the exception of Atlanta, these seem to be cities with few attractions overall. If I try to control for number of attractions in each city, the city museums that come out ahead are Atlanta History Center (3/167), Museum of London (16/720), Heinz History Center/Pittsburgh (3/50), People’s Palace/Glasgow (11/135), Museum of the History of Barcelona (17/204), and Pointe-à-Callière/Montreal (19/199).

I noticed a couple of other themes from the textual reviews. First, TripAdvisors made note of free admission as something they valued (Helsinki City Museum, Musée Carnavalet/Paris, Museum of London, Museum of Edinburgh), not surprising. Second, some museums have unusual features you don’t see other places (Mannekin Pis wardrobe at Museum of the City of Brussels, the Kaiser Panorama at Markisches Museum/Berlin, the nuclear fallout shelter at Story of Berlin, and the archaeological excavations on the lower levels of Pointe-à-Callière/Montreal and Museum of the History of Barcelona), which then get reinforced in the reviews as a reason TripAdvisors think other people should visit.

Lastly, it’s interesting that several of my personal favorites (Helsinki City Museum, Museum of Copenhagen, Amsterdam Museum) did reasonably well (4 stars each) but did not stand out. And Museum of the History of the City of Luxembourg wasn’t reviewed at all. Maybe they would fare better with local reviewers?

I learned a little from this exercise but not as much as I’d hoped. I’m going to keep my eyes out for other numbers to compare. In the meantime, it looks like I’ve got some reviews to write…

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One of the best parts of my November visit to China was the tour I took of West Lake, in the city of Hangzhou. West Lake is a special place, treasured by all of China but treasured in particular by the residents of Hangzhou. After a few hours there I could understand why; the landscape is restorative. Everywhere I looked there was a different kind of beautiful. We took this boat:

Across the lake to this island:

And along the way the view looked like this:

After the boat ride we toured the West Lake Museum, where I developed an even deeper appreciation for the power of this place. Turns out that for hundreds of years there has been a history of identifying the best views or spots at the lake and giving them special status, sort of a West Lake Top Ten. An important part of this practice is that each special place is given a poetic name. In fact, according to the museum interpretation West Lake serves as one of the best examples of the Chinese tradition of assigning poetic names to beautiful places. There have been a number of these poetic lists at West Lake over the years; the most well-known (and one of the oldest, although I had trouble pinpointing list origins) is this one (I recommend clicking here for the full effect, with photos):

Dawn on the Su Causeway in Spring
Curved Yard and Lotus Pool in Summer
Moon over the Peaceful Lake in Autumn
Remnant Snow on the Bridge in Winter
Leifeng Pagoda in the Sunset
Two Peaks Piercing the Clouds
Orioles Singing in the Willows
Fish Viewing at the Flower Pond
Three Ponds Mirroring the Moon
Evening Bell Ringing at the Nanping Hill

Periodically, even up to present day, new lists are created, sometimes involving public contests. A recent list is:

Cloud-Sustained Path in a Bamboo Grove
Sweet Osmanthus Rain at Manlong Village
Running Tiger Dream Spring at Hupao Valley
Inquiring about Tea at Dragon Well
Nine Creeks Meandering Through a Misty Forest
Heavenly Wind over Wu Hill
Ruan’s Mound Encircled by Greenness
Yellow Dragon Cave Dressed in Green
Clouds Scurrying over Jade Emperor Hill
Precious Stone Hill Floating in Rosy Cloud

Poetic indeed. After some online investigation I found other places in China–Beijing, for example–with designated poetic names, but not a whole lot of information about the overall history of the practice and its cultural meaning. Let’s be clear, therefore, that I’m coming at this as an uninformed outsider, but I really like this concept. And while a visitor like me can appreciate poetic names at West Lake, I think they are mainly meant for locals. It’s a way of acknowledging the places we go back to again and again, the ones that make us appreciate changing seasons and times of day, the ones we would fight to preserve. It says: “I know this place. For it, not just any name will do.”

My experience at West Lake made me immediately start thinking about my own special places and what their names should be. I’ve been playing around with some of my favorite cities: Ball Soaring toward Green Monster (Boston) and Tervasaari Burning with Afternoon Light (Helsinki), for example. I’ve also been thinking about my house: Sun Streaming through Front Window Turns Us Catlike, and Sunday Funnies Enveloped in Fluffy Goosedown Cloud. Some results have been better than others but I’m not too concerned about that; it’s the process that matters. There’s a lot of joy in thinking about your favorite places and distilling them down to their most meaningful attributes, savoring the possibilities of each word. And I could see how a city-wide effort–crowd-sourcing suggestions, voting on the best names, arguing passionately, celebrating the outcome–could be a powerful collective experience.

Post a comment if this has you thinking about poetic names for the places in your life. I’d love to start keeping a list. And who knows, maybe turn it into a full-scale project some day.

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In July of this year Asian Longhorned Beetles were found in six red maple trees in a wooded area about a mile from my house in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood. Asian Longhorned Beetles bore into hardwood trees like birch, maple, and elm, eventually killing them if left untreated. Authorities consequently set up a quarantine area that includes my street. This means no one is allowed to transport firewood or yard waste out of the area, and an inspection is being conducted within the quarantine zone. There is a particular concern for the trees of Arnold Arboretum, which lies within the quarantine area.

In 2008 there was an Asian Longhorned Beetle outbreak in Worcester, Massachusetts. The city was forced to cut down 25,000 trees. Here’s a before and after comparison:

Worcester Street before, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street before, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street after, by Kenneth R. Law

Worcester Street after, by Kenneth R. Law

With old trees, as with historic buildings and artifacts, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. (more…)

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Courtesy Andre Bandim/Flickr

We hit Barcelona last week. It was a culture shock after Helsinki–loud, huge, hot, a little disordered, and out all night. It smelled differently too: on the streets there was always a faint whiff of frying food, garbage, urine, hot dirt. A few months ago I posted that it took time for me to get adjusted to the smell of Helsinki when I arrived there in March–my nose was off-kilter for the first few weeks. In Barcelona I realized that, having grown up in a warm climate, it was the underlying smell of things baking in the heat–slightly off-putting but nonetheless familiar–that I was missing in Helsinki.

The Barcelona city museum is in the old city, in a complex of buildings that includes a medieval palace and church. The lower level has been excavated to reveal the remains of dyeing, fish processing, and wine-making businesses. You can walk around on platforms just above the excavations. I have seen this technique at two other museums: Pointe-à-Callière in Montreal and Aboa Vetus in Turku, Finland.

(more…)

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Courtesy thbl/Flickr

I finally made it to St. Petersburg. It was enormous and beautiful, albeit with a patina of decay. Everything I had read about St. Petersburg’s relationship with Helsinki fell into place while I was there, just as it had when I was in Stockholm. These two much more powerful cities took turns ruling Helsinki–indeed all of Finland–until the early 20th century. It’s funny how you can read about such things for pages and pages but not actually get it until you’re there, standing in Palace Square, taking in the architecture of empire. St. Petersburg and Stockholm look like cities that have ruled other places, same as London and Paris.

I was born in North Carolina, in the American South. North Carolina is sometimes described as the “vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.” (more…)

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I ♥ Helsinki

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…)

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