The Observatory’s public timepiece

A beautiful old, still-functioning precision pendulum clock hangs on the wall of a corridor leading to the Argelander lecture room at the Helsinki Observatory. This ‘Normal Zeit’ clock used to be placed in the lobby of the Observatory building where it functioned as a public timepiece that Helsinki residents could use to check the time. It is soon again time to turn the clock one hour forward when summer time begins. There are plenty of clocks at the Helsinki Observatory, including several precision clocks, the oldest of which dates back to the 18th century. How are these clocks linked to the Observatory?

An elongated wall-mounted grandfather clock, with a round, glass-covered clock face in a wooden case and the clock pendulums behind a glass door underneath.
Normal Zeit clock at the Observatory. Photo: Helsinki University Museum/Timo Huvilinna, 2013.

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“Don’t mess with my docent”

The collections of the Helsinki University Museum include several signs and banners used in protests and demonstrations. One of them is a 30-year-old, worn-out cardboard sign stapled to a wooden stick, with the text Älä töni mun dosenttiani (‘Don’t mess with my docent’) written in black felt-tip pen.

Protest sign used in early 1990. Photo: Helsinki University Museum.

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He turned out to be a she!

The University of Helsinki Art Room holds an impressive collection of drawings, but the identity of some of the artists is not known. The signatures, if any, may be unclear, and notes made on the drawings may sometimes be misleading.

As I was cataloguing the drawings in our database and conducting online searches to establish the identity of the artists, I came across a skilled drawing entitled Portrait of a Young Woman, which showed the profile of a woman, from a slightly downward angle, with her hair in a bun and wearing a check shirt. At the bottom of the paper was the name Onni Bäckström, while at the top were the initials F. A. followed by ‘April 93’. Based on what I saw, I immediately assumed that the artist was a male student called Onni Bäckström. The initials at the top were of the person who had approved the work: Fredrik Ahlstedt, a teacher at the Art Room.

Drawing of a woman with a check shirt and hair in a bun, halv figure, profile.
Onni Bäckström’s drawing Portrait of a Young Woman, 1893. University of Helsinki art collection. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Pia Vuorikoski.

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Gifts from medicine students

This month, we will be discussing two objects made by students of medicine, a tea cosy and a wall hanging. Both come from the maternity ward of the Helsinki general hospital. The maternity ward provided practical training on childbirth to candidates of medicine from 1833 onwards. A dedicated hospital for childbirth and gynaecological treatment as well as the practical study of gynaecology didn’t exist in Finland until the establishment of the Naistenklinikka Women’s Hospital in 1934.

A blue tea cosy with an embroidered fetus on the side.
The tea cosy is from 1928. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Henna Sinisalo.

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Atelier knits

The University Museum’s craft science collection features several atelier-created evening gowns, but one stands out as exceptional: it is entirely made of knit fabric. The outfit includes a knitted evening gown, jacket and shawl as well as shoes dyed to match the gown. What is the history and background of this outfit? This has been the research focus of Docent Ritva Koskennurmi-Sivonen, whose articles have been used as references in this text.

Evening gown

A red, sleeveless evening dress with red pumps.
Photo: Anna Luhtala; Ritva Koskennurmi-Sivonen.

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Tower of the Winds from Sederholm’s scale model collection

At a time when long-distance travel was rare, faraway regions could be brought to people through the means of art and, later, photography. One way to examine culture and architecture was by studying scale models. They also afforded an opportunity to look into the past, especially in the case of historical locations that had not survived for posterity. As our object of the month for October, we present a scale model of the classical era Tower of the Winds from the Sederholm collection I catalogued last spring.

The scale model of the Tower of the Winds is light grey, octagonal building with red roof.
The scale model of the Tower of the Winds is 26 cm high. The weather vane in the shape of the god Triton that once adorned the rooftop has disappeared. Photo: Helsinki University Museum / Anna Luhtala.

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The “pear” that survived the Great Fire of Turku

Some physics instruments can be quite captivating due to, for instance, their peculiar shape or material. Take this pear-shaped object known as Nicholson’s hydrometer, for example. With the anniversary of the Great Fire of Turku of 1827 taking place on 4 September, we decided to select as the object of the month one of the treasures that survived the blaze and now features in our collection. What is this pear-shaped, streamlined, metallic object known variously as an areometer, a gravimeter, a densimeter and a hydrometer? The names tell us very little about the object itself, so let’s find out more.

Nicholson’s hydrometer, a device for measuring specific gravity.
Nicholson’s hydrometer, a device for measuring specific gravity, 1814. Helsinki University Museum.

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