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Ateneum Art Museum reopening: Director Marja Sakari interview

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

Finland’s Ateneum Art Museum is reopening on Friday 14 April 2023. The biggest and most famous art museum in the country, it will welcome visitors again after a year-long closure.

Located in the heart of Helsinki, the Ateneum Art Museum (part of the Finnish National Gallery) is renowned for its collection of Finnish and international art. There are over 30,000 works from the 19th century to the modern era.

The Ateneum closed in March 2022 for a rather unglamorous upgrade: they were updating the ventilation system. But the time was put to other good use, and staff and curators embarked on a full rehang of its permanent collection too. The new collection display — called A Question of Time — will be unveiled when the museum reopens, and it will include over 400 works by 200 artists. Visitors are promised old favourites, never-before-seen pieces, and rarely exhibited items.

To celebrate this exciting milestone for one of Europe’s premier galleries, we interview Ateneum Director Marja Sakari.

Marja has been at the helm of the museum since 2018, and was previously Chief Curator of exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, another of the Finnish National Gallery sites.

Here she tells maxwell museums why the ventilation revamp was actually vital for the museum to function; the logistics behind the rehang, and the role the gallery plays in Finnish identity, And she also describes the feeling of finding out the museum was being gifted a very unexpected €1 million in someone’s will.


Hello Marja. The Ateneum Art Museum reopens on 14 April 2023. Tell us what's happened over the past 12 months?

A lot has happened, but the end result of the closure is in changes both to the physical fabric of our public spaces and in our way of looking at the collection.

The main reason for the renovation was renewing the whole ventilation system — it is a vital component of how we protect and conserve works of art for future generations and it is also one of the systems that became increasingly important during the pandemic. The new system consumes less energy and combined with solar panels we’ve had installed on the roof, it will help us to reduce costs and emissions.

What we hope visitors will notice is the difference in the experience they have moving through the museum. We took the opportunity to refurbish and remodel the atrium, entrance, clockroom and lobby areas, along with creating a new museum shop and toilets, to make all the spaces more accessible.

Other work included restoring the grand staircase and an upgrade to the technology in our auditorium. The renovations were untaken by Senaatti, a state-owned company which manages the properties owned by the Republic of Finland and cost around 17 million euros.

Photo of the museum building with a blurred image of a moving tram in front
Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki. © Ville Malja

Visitors coming back to the museum will also see a complete rehang of the permanent collection. Why?

We’ve been thinking about the role of the collection for some time. In the years leading up to our 2020 exhibition Inspiration — Contemporary Art and Classics we actively thought about how the grand narratives of art history came about and what role museums have played in the process.

The 19th century was the golden age of the founding of museums in Europe, including the Ateneum which was founded in 1888. We actively sought to explore how our collection visually informed and impacted art history and Ateneum’s role in deciding who belonged in the canon.

The renovation work gave us the opportunity to refresh and renew the hang in the hopes of creating new perspectives and forging new connections with audiences. We’ll reopen with A Question of Time — a thematic exhibition compared to the usual chronological approach — where the aim is to provide a reflective space that ranges across different eras. Fundamentally we wanted to answer the question — ‘How can the Ateneum be a collection for everyone?’

Tell me a bit about the process of carrying out a rehang - what work goes into it?

When we started to think about the rehang, we wanted to involve all our staff, the wider community and experts from outside the museum world. So, in 2021-22 we organised a series of discussions with SITRA, The Finnish Innovation Fund. We wanted to start conversations by inviting people from across all walks of life to help us in reimagining the museum's role in society. While visitors can still expect to find their beloved works, the exhibition will also highlight artworks presenting historically marginalised minorities and ethnic minorities such as the Roma and Sámi. Many of these works have received little attention because they have not been part of the prevailing narrative of Finnishness.

Finnishness and national identity are very big topics at the moment. The parliamentary elections have just been held and it seems that Finland's next government will shift to the right. This is one of the reasons why I think we need wider discussions about who Finns are and how is Finnishness portrayed.

What are some of the works that will be on show for the very first time?

When renovating a 130-year-old building, you have to be prepared for anything and during the renovation there were some fun discoveries of works in storage which have never been shown, including many from the post-war period.

The Ateneum is renowned for its collection of work from the turn of the 20th century, and many of the works from that period are all-time favourites of the Finnish public. In purely quantitative terms, however, the bulk of the collection contains more recent works and the Ateneum houses the largest collection of modernist art in Finland. Works from this period that visitors will now be able to enjoy include Erkki Heikkilä’s Floating Log Bundles (1970), Skipping Rope in Summer (1972) by Pirkko Lepistö and Kain Tapper’s, Heavy rain (1973).

But this is just the start of the process as the content of the exhibition will be updated over time so it will continually challenge the way in which the collection has traditionally been viewed.

Painting of children playing skipping rope in the wood
Pirkko Lepistö, Skipping Rope in Summer, 1972. Photo Kansallisgalleria/Jenni Nurminen

What does the Ateneum’s collection say about Finland and Finnish society?

Whilst Finnish artists have always been inspired by international art movements, the collection can be seen as a reflection of Finnish society and its evolution over time. Many of the works in the collection were created during periods of significant cultural, social, and political change – including works by artists who were active during the period of Finnish national awakening in the late 19th century, when Finland was transitioning from being part of the Russian Empire to an independent nation. These works can be seen as expressions of Finnish identity and pride, as well as symbols of resistance against cultural assimilation and political oppression.

But the collection is not just about preserving the past – as mentioned one of the key questions we wanted to ask is with the rehang is What does being Finnish look like? In the 1800s, the Sámi, Russian Karelians, Roma and Jews were all considered outsiders. These divisions have created inequalities that can still be felt today – hence our decision to include works in the rehang that depict groups whose members were not part of the ruling class at the time – a new portrait of the nation.

Last year, you received an unprecedented legacy donation of over one million euros. How did you feel when you found out — and how are you spending the money?

After a tough few years, receiving this news was fantastic – we were elated. The money will be used to expand free admission to six free entrance days and two late nights a year and give free entry to students.

It has also enabled us to start a new community program to make the museum more inclusive and to reach groups who usually don’t visit museums. We’ve also been able to produce an audio guide to the collection display and to develop immersive elements to the interpretation to further engage audiences.

What would you say to any other citizens thinking about leaving the museum a legacy donation?

I realise that charitable giving is a very personal thing but absolutely, if people are moved to and are able to, I would like to see more legacy donations. Museums have the capacity to be transformative spaces and a legacy donation can have an enormous impact on our ability to expand accessibility, fund new education programs and exhibitions, and enhance our service to visitors and the wider community.

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Is the museum still suffering from the effects of the Covid pandemic?

We were, and are, extremely lucky to have the support of the Finnish state. That helped us to recover more quickly as an institution and continue our activities as planned. What’s been challenging is trying to maintain the sense of community we have with the public as the closure for the renovations came quite soon after the liftings of all the covid restrictions.

Photo portrait of a woman in glasses in front of a wall of paintings
Ateneum Museum Director Marja Sakari. Photo by Jenni Nurminen

When people come to visit Helsinki they should obviously visit the Ateneum Museum. But what else should be on their itinerary?

Yes, people should definitely visit Ateneum and our sister museums, Kiasma and the Sinebrychoff. But there are so many more including Amos Rex, the HAM (Helsinki Art Museum) and the EMMA (Espoo Museum of Modern Art). Helsinki is a very walkable city so depending how much time you have you can cover a lot of ground. Helsinki Design District is a hub of creativity, featuring shops, studios, and galleries showcasing Finnish design, fashion and architecture. I would recommend checking out the Oodi Library for its striking design and innovative and modern approach, and if architecture is an interest, the Alvar Aalto home in Munkkiniemi is a must!

The Ateneum Art Museum | Finnish National Gallery reopens Friday 14 April 2023


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