Exploring Helsinki’s Public Past

A blog post by Benjamin Filene

I arrived to Helsinki two weeks ago, on a Fulbright Mid-Career Professional Development Grant, thanks to the generosity and diligence of Dr. Suzie Thomas, my official host through the Fulbright Program.  Back home in the United States, I serve as Chief Curator at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, a position I have held for a year.  Prior to that, I ran a Museum Studies graduate program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for a dozen years, and before that, I spent nine at the Minnesota History Center, where I was Senior Exhibit Developer.

At Suzie’s invitation, I offer here a snapshot of my goals for my time in Finland.  Perhaps they can serve as the benchmark that I refer back to at the end of my stay (in May 2019), to see how things turned out!

I come with an academic interest in public memory and a professional one in trying to make history relevant and meaningful to contemporary audiences.  Most broadly, my aim is to explore the role history plays in public life here in Finland and to gain perspectives that I can take home to my museum work.  There are three areas that I hope to pursue:

A scan of the history-making landscape:

Who makes history in Helsinki?  I am eager to visit and meet with staff at history museums and historic sites in the city (and beyond), to learn how they perceive their audiences, what formats they find effective to engage them, and how they conceive of their institution’s mission in relation to the contemporary life of their city and its citizens.

New perspectives on museology and training:

What skills do museum workers need, and what is the relationship between research and practice in training them?  While the university systems in Finland and American differ considerably, many of the core issues remain the same.  My time here is an opportunity to see different approaches in action, compare notes with Suzie and the other program leaders here, and refine my sense of what a future, more internationalized field might look like.

Benjamin Filene talking at the Current Trends in Museological Research course in January 2018.

I spent my first week here attending and then guest-teaching in a lively graduate seminar on Current Trends in Museological Research, led by Suzie and her colleague Nina Robbins.  I was impressed by the sophistication of the students’ insights, their earnest engagement with the issues at hand, and the professional experience that they bring to the discussion.

Immersion in professional practice:

How can museums function effectively as public institutions?  During my time here, I will be working closely with the Helsinki City Museum, to gain a sense of how an innovative institution operates.  I will be completing a project for them (a conceptual plan for either the Tram Museum or the Worker Housing Museum) and, along the way, exploring how the staff approaches the process of building a project team, creating community connections, and integrating insights and approaches from multiple disciplines.

Historical trams are a popular part of the Helsinki City Museums’ collection.
Kuva: Yehia Eweis / Helsingin kaupunginmuseo

It is exciting to be in a position to ask big, open-ended questions and to have partners eager to help me seek answers.  If you yourself have thoughts or suggestions for me, please do contact me at benjamin.filene@ncdcr.gov.  I look forward to sharing some of my findings down the road!