ON OCTOBER 18, 1996


Museums are the memory of mankind. This is the way we - both professional museologists and educated museum visitors - usually think. In practice, the changes affecting the world around us seem to be gathering speed - change has become a permanent condition of our lives. Our collective and individual memories are hard pressed in this atmosphere of continuous change. The old stable and familiar structures and the states of mind which used to maintain them have receded into history before our very eyes. Increasingly often, the ability to tolerate insecurity rules the lives of Finnish people.

How should we perceive the role of museums against this background? The trend seems to be two-fold. History and tradition provide us with comfort and moral security at a time when the future seems insecure and unplanned. Our museums foster permanence and continuity. At their best, they are respite places which provide us with experiences of by-gone days in an unhurried atmosphere.

On the other hand, it is in the spirit of the times that people want to know about their background and cultural heritage. The museum system is embedded in the needs of the community and the times. At their best, museums convey information about their community's history and interpret it in the light of today's concerns.

The museums in Finland have played an important role in reflecting the country's national image and its special features. Thus, the ethical and professional principles set for Finnish museums were high from early on: museums were intended to reinforce the national identity as well as to accumulate collections and promote high-standard research.

For the past 40 years, the Finnish museum sector has undergone a real upheaval - I myself felt this in a concrete way when I was employed as a local historian by the City of Espoo, in charge of the reorganization of the Glims Museum in the late 1960s. The number of museums has multiplied and interest in history increased. The profession has changed and museums have specialized and become more service-minded.

Today's museums are required to display a bolder, more original approach, and to put on exhibitions which are more challenging both visually and in the quality of their information. Museums have to meet citizens' growing recreational needs and respond to the challenges posed by the higher level of general education. Technology, computer programmes, multi-media and other technical equipment which take the visitors on an adventure to the world of information are used increasingly.

The recession and international models have also introduced result accountability and commercialism into our museums. Subsequently, a number of museum shops have been opened in Finland in the 1990s. Many are ambitious and original shops, underscoring the importance of quality. This is a very positive trend. I admit to being a friend of museum shops because I like gifts which have a story to tell. In my New York years, any gifts or presents I brought back with me to Finland were bought at the Museum for Contemporary Art or Metropolitan Museum shops. A pretty scarf, broach, umbrella, paper serviettes or bookmarks are welcome gifts for friends or a pleasure to have yourself.

Side by side with these new items, the old favourites - museum or exhibition guide books - have also survived, as this year's 'Museum Guide Book of the Year' competition shows. Many of the works reflect the sheer joy and enthusiasm of the creative process and a love of museums and their collections. The books entered were without exception visually compelling, originally elegant, informative and to the point. I spent many pleasurable moments reading them.

This year's prize went to the Treasures of Porvoo Museum, the museum's centenary publication, edited by curator Marketta Tamminen. Visually the book is harmonious, solid in content and very readable. It presents 60 items from the collections of one of Finland's oldest cultural history museums. By focusing on authentic individual objects the book returns to and takes a fresh look at the original source of museum ideology. The 'stories' and anecdotes told by the exhibits depict their times, makers and owners in a way which is beautiful and also brings history alive.