A museum visitor is taking a photo with her phone.
Photo: Helka Miettunen

Marja Sakari’s blog: Towards a more diverse Ateneum

Many sources have called upon the Ateneum to take stronger action against racism*. We warmly welcome these calls to action and are actively working to encourage diversity at the Finnish National Gallery.

I have noticed that, in present-day Finland, many people are frustrated with the structural and everyday racism and discrimination present in our society. In a letter addressed to us, the Call for Action for Art Institutions in Finland community aptly expressed their “frustration with the systematic ignoring of prevalent racism, combined with silencing of BIPOC efforts to question it”.

We have actively discussed these questions at the Ateneum and the Finnish National Gallery. For example, we are working on the Finnish National Gallery’s principles for safer space and an equality plan. The aim of the safer space principles is to ensure that the Ateneum is a discrimination- and harassment-free zone. With our actions, we want to show that we do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind. Every one of us is responsible for the safety of our space. Together and separately, we create a positive and safe atmosphere and take care of each other.

Maintaining diversity and ensuring inclusion require concrete action. One example is our Kaikuu (‘Echo – Learning Finnish with the Ateneum’) project. Within this project, we have invited Finnish language students from diverse backgrounds to the Ateneum to discuss our art collection. In the project, we focus on the question of how those from outside the dominant culture experience our art collection. We use easy Finnish with the students because it is everyone’s right to understand and be understood. This project also trains our guides to be even more open and inclusive when interacting with diverse audiences.

Museum visitors are sitting at a gallery space.
A guided tour of the Kaikuu (‘Echo – Learning Finnish with the Ateneum’) project. Photo: Helka Miettunen

In addition, we are updating our brand promise to incorporate diversity and inclusion in our everyday operations. We are a contributor to social debate, and we must perform that role responsibly. This requires willingness to discuss and change. Art has the power to help us face familiar and tough issues. Promoting diversity includes accepting differences and conflicts.

Currently, we are planning a new collections exhibition that is due to open in 2023. The exhibition will explore our collection and its formation from rather varied perspectives. One of the central questions the exhibition will discuss is whose cultural heritage our collection actually represents.

Could the collection offer a genuine voice and provide a sounding board for the perspectives of those from diverse backgrounds? It is important for us to acknowledge that our own gaze is not neutral and to make sure that we examine our perspectives critically. Recognising our own position helps us become aware of possible deep-rooted hierarchies and ways of thinking that can be changed after becoming aware of them.

By actively discussing anti-racism, making concrete changes, and creating new content, the Ateneum can influence both the Finnish art scene and the future of society more broadly. I hope that, in the future, we can offer a genuine platform for anti-racist discussion and artistic projects that examine the questions of cultural diversity in Finland.

At its best, art is a strong tool for change. We use that tool to create a shared and diverse image of the world and to increase our understanding of each other. With us, everyone can travel through time and step into new experiences that will increase understanding and – hopefully – empathy.

We are on our way toward a more equal and multivoiced Ateneum. To achieve this goal, we need active dialogue with our diverse audiences!

* Finnish operators promoting anti-racism and inclusion include the following: Art for Equality, Call for Action for Art Institutions in Finland community, Museum of Impossible Forms, Arma Alliance (The Anti-Racism Media Activist Alliance), and Globe Art Point.

Author:Marja Sakari

Museum Director, PhD
marja.sakari [a] ateneum.fi