Reframing the future of Finland – with newcomers

Cultural diversity is on the rise in Finland, but does the institutional landscape reflect that fact? Do the newcomers – migrants of different kinds – have access to the institutions? Does their presence shape the cultural narrative of this society? These are among the questions that we have recently tried to reflect on in cooperation with our partners from the cultural scene.

The national storytelling

Let’s start by playing with thoughts. Consider the National Museum of Finland as the author of the nation’s auto-biography. Many traits known from self-narration seem to hold in the museum sector as well. Autobiographies carry a selection of one’s past life for potential future readers and it is up to the author to create a certain coherence in the story. The author might forget or omit certain things and show themself in a favourable light, especially if the time is not yet right for the author to open up past or present challenges.

Judging by the two recent programme items – the ongoing exhibition The public and the hidden Finland as well as the pop-up photo studio and exhibition Studio Aleppo [Helsinki] in August – the National Museum as the author is ready to face old and new facts. The ongoing exhibition, to start with, “challenges us to discuss our history and the transparency of our times”, as the success story of Finland tends to conceal some disturbing facts, i.e. “some phenomena that we might have wanted to forget or hide”. On the other hand, the museum wants to reflect on its view of the present. The invitation to upload #Finland2117 pictures in Instagram for the #Suomi200 museum publics is a small but very nice indication of this. Imagine that you would now receive a sample of pictures that the museum visitors of 1917 put into archives for you to see now!

Aleppo in town

Welcoming Studio Aleppo to Helsinki is also a very welcome opening to reflect on the storytelling by the museum. The studio is part of an international series of events that wants to strengthen the importance of empathy and equality in the discussion concerning immigration. We* had the pleasure to organize one of its side-events “Newcomers – Reframing the future of Finland” on the 15th of August, 2017. There we discussed the lessons from the Studio Aleppo [Helsinki] process and tried to reflect on how newcomers and their presence shape the cultural narrative of this society and how cultural institutions should reflect this transition.

The intention for the National Museum has been to tell a long, long story about the history of Finland and the Finns, going back hundreds or even thousands of years. In the Newcomers event we asked Elina Anttila, the Director General of the museum, how this storytelling changes now as the population diversifies and the time span of a certain common story shortens. She responded that responding to this kind of change is not easy to an organisation with such a legacy and mission. Yet there is no alternative if the museum wishes to retain its legitimacy as a place for all the people residing in this country. She talked also about the need to build up new relations within the society, with new groups of people. Besides welcoming Studio Aleppo in Helsinki she appeared very determined to continue in a similar vein, making new kind of connections within the existing diversity.  

The sheer production of the Studio Aleppo [Helsinki] has created a number of new connections. As Ceyda Berk Söderblom, Co-founder of MiklagårdArts and the executive producer of Studio Aleppo [Helsinki] said, the Studio Aleppo project caught her attention as a cultural manager  since it also reflects her own story. Having moved from Turkey to Helsinki less than two years ago, she said that while it is clearly a benefit in the art world to be international, it still takes time to find your place. For her, producing and curating the exhibition and its side-events have been a very personal matter. Although feeling for the other newcomers has been easy, it has been a major learning process for her to orientate through the Finnish cultural scene. Judging by the very warm atmosphere around the pop-up studio of Juuso Westerlund and exhibition, she has finally managed to bring together new and old citizens of Finland.

Towards increasing interculturality

What comes next? Many other institutions of the cultural sector are in the process of opening up, rising to the challenge of interculturality. Following Mark Terkessidis, the author of ‘Interkultur’, one thinking aid is to conceive interculturality as absence of barriers. Deserting the illusion of a “normal” user or an “average” visitor and providing equal access to all should be the base line.

Providing access, proved to be the main topic of the Open Space discussion of the Newcomers-event. We have tried to summarize the discussions in some bullet points – each of which is well worth a number of further discussion events. As the final panel seemed to agree, events such as the Newcomers discussion provide are good starting points but much remains to be done in the cultural sector and beyond.

  • Self-understanding and self-reflection within institutions has to be the starting point, but immediately after that comes co-creation. Like Hani Tarabichi said, he would like to witness “giving voice, visibility, and velocity to newcomers to co-create value and positive impact in Finland”. This should also happen right away as it is in nobody’s interest to keep people waiting for meaningful roles.
  • Having done less harm than colonial superpowers have caused in their sphere of influence, Finland should be well positioned to welcome “anybody”. However, Finland looks rather peculiar, like Erik Söderblom said. Much of the Finnish agenda has been focused on keeping other nation(al)s out. No wonder the Finns tend to praise and raise good goalkeepers.  
  • The talk about integration of the newcomers miss the point of all of us being in this together. Can’t we first ask whether the destination society is worth the effort for thousands of people to become integrated? Shouldn’t we try to make the society attractive for integration? Are we sure that the current institutions are accessible to the people that they are meant to serve?
  • Museums could consider operating inside-out for a change. Instead of trying to invent programme that would attract newcomers to the museum, the museum could go to the newcomers. Like Hamza Amarouche said, it is also important for the cultural institutions to employ newcomers and to widen the perspective together with them.
  • The available experience and expertise of institutions like International Cultural Centre Caisa is a great resource. Their long-term experience in cherishing the existing richness should be used when the cultural sector rethinks its focus and renews its practices.
  • There are networks that try to bridge the gap between the established, Finnish art scene and the foreign artists that are settling in Finland. Like Tomi Purovaara and Sepideh Rahaa from the Globe Art Point said, collaboration of the big players such as the National Museum and agile network-like counterparts could be a win-win setting.
  • Foreign artists can be very helpful in locating “black holes” in the Finnish historical narrative. Like art historian Laura Gutman said, it often appears that the Finnish history started in the 19th century, and has had little to do with the outside world. Fortunately her observation is that this is less and less the case, as the new generations is willing to open up to a new narrative.  
  • The central role of the civil society stood out clearly. The role of the third sector organisations and other networks of volunteers have been crucial in providing access points for the newcomers. The past two years in the lives of the asylum seekers, for instance, would have been far bleaker without the vitality of the activists such as Sanna Valtonen (Home Accommodation Network & Support for Asylum Seekers).
  • Storytelling is a great tool when the old and the new citizens try to understand each other. A great example was brought up by Peter Seenan whose project, featuring stories of newcomers, aims to give the Finnish society food for thought about smooth integration.
  • A number of practices were listed for getting the newcomers’ voices heard in Finland:
    • Activities around food: bringing people together, sharing recipes, cooking tours, Restaurant Day, food hosts, e.g. plate culture
    • Inviting people over to each other’s homes and neighbourhoods
    • Grouping and finding people through hobbies and professions
    • Publishing (translation) in Finnish
    • Rap workshops, living library idea
    • “Real people” talking in schools
    • ‘’TED talks’’ for schools; idea of speakers

The history of the future is written every day. Let’s do our best to make it cherish the current and future diversity better than now. It may require radical intercultural openings but will surely result in a more inclusive cultural scene and thereby a more open society. Reforms of many societal sectors have been pending irrespective of the amount of immigration, so there is now a great momentum to getting things done for the benefit of both the old and the new. Renewing the system means increasing societal interaction – making new kinds of connections within the existing diversity.  

* Demos Helsinki, Caisa Cultural Centre & MiklagårdArts

Edited by Kaisa Schmidt-Thomé