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A photographic history of Finland - warts and all

Finland is in the middle of its 100th anniversary of independence and various celebrations of the country's cultural history and achievements abound. A new photography exhibit at the National Museum, The Public and the Hidden Finland, takes a look at some less glamorous - but clearly historically-significant - events that have shaped the country during the past century.

Mielenosoittajat Senaatintorilla suurlakon aikaan maaliskuussa 1956.
A man photographing a sea of demonstrators on Senate Square in Helsinki, during Finland's general strike in March, 1956. Image: U. A. Saarinen

The National Museum's photo exhibit The Public and the Hidden Finland is structured around six themes: education, war, race, equality and democracy, society's relationship with nature as well as community.

The exhibit's photographs were taken from the National Board of Antiquities' vast archive of some 15 million images.

General strike 1956

The above photo depicts a man taking a photograph of a sea of demonstrators on Senate Square in Helsinki, during Finland's general strike in March, 1956.

The strike, which involved some half a million workers across the country, brought Finland's industry and traffic to a standstill for 19 days. The movement was sparked by government reforms of salaries and price regulations the previous year, which led to severe price hikes on daily necessities like milk and even rent. The cost of living rose by some seven percent.

Työttömien Murrostorstai suurmielenosoitus eduskuntatalolla maaliskuussa 1993.
Protesters in front of Finnish Parliament, March 1993. Image: Kari Kankainen
 

The 90s depression

History repeated itself somewhat, if for different reasons, in the early 1990s. The photo above depicts a demonstration by the unemployed in front of Finnish Parliament in March 1993. At that point, Finland was in one of the worst economic crises in its history - even worse than the depression of the 1930s.

Kestävyysjuoksija Paavo Nurmen voimisteluohjelma 1925.
Paavo Nurmi doing gymnastics in a thong, 1925. Image: Neittamo tai Heinrich Iffland
 

The shadow of eugenics

The exhibit also looks at the topic of race in Finland's history. Eugenics is the set of beliefs and practices popular in the 1930s based on the idea of improving the genetic material of the population by means that would now be viewed as brutal, discriminatory or racist. Finland had its share of eugenics enthusiasts, and in the 1930s laws were introduced which sanctioned forced sterilisations [mainly of women]. At the time, all four Nordic countries, including Finland, adopted some form of eugenics laws.

In the 1920s and 30s some scientists claimed that the Finnish "race" descended from Mongolia - not primarily from Europe. But other researchers who rejected the assertion travelled the country in search of specimens of "perfect Finns," often photographing them to prove the genetic superiority of the Finnish people.

The above shot, taken in 1925, features a scantily-clad Paavo Nurmi, the legendary Finnish runner known as the Flying Finn. Nurmi was presented as the ultimate - even supreme - Finnish specimen of athletic prowess.

Lapset katua kraappaamassa Raahen Saaristokadulla 1923.
Child labour. Image: Samuli Paulaharju
 

Child labour

Finland's prosperity was still quite far off when the above photo was taken in 1923. Three children crouched on a cobblestone sidewalk on the west coast town of Raahe were not simply playing - they at work, building the road.

Näkymä Veronmaksajain Keskusliitto ry:n edustalta Helsingissä vappupäivänä 2015.
Poverty on the street. Image: Sakari Kiuru
 

Poverty on the street

This more recent photo shows a homeless person huddled in the meagre shelter of the Taxpayers Association of Finland's entryway in Helsinki on May Day 2015. Finns typically mark May Day with trade union marches and speeches throughout the country.

The exhibit opened at the National Museum in Helsinki last weekend and runs until the middle of January 2018.

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