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Which artwork would you save in a disaster?

Ateneum in downtown Helsinki is seen as the home of Finnish art, but which masterpieces are central to Finnish heritage in an emergency?

Ateneum Art Museum has a secret evacuation list. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Imagine that disaster has struck Helsinki and the museum caretaker is locking up before running out. Jumping onto an evacuation bus, the caretaker tosses the keys into an overflowing sewer on Mannerheimintie. What will become of the priceless works of art hanging on the museum’s walls?

Ateneumin taidemuseon johtaja Susanna Pettersson
Susanna Pettersson. Image: Sasha Silvala / Yle

Ateneum’s museum director Susanna Pettersson says her staff is prepared for most scenarios. Ateneum has an evacuation list, just like most other large museums around the world, outlining which pieces are to be moved to a safe location well before it’s too late. While the evacuation list is a closely guarded secret that only a few people can access, it's worth exploring why a piece of art is considered central to national identity. In this story you will see some of Ateneum’s most famous pieces which may--or may not be--on that special list.

Hugo Simberg: Haavoittunut enkeli (1903). Öljyvärimaalaus
The Wounded Angel (1903) by Hugo Simberg was voted Finland's “national painting” in 2006. Image: Ateneumin taidemuseo

Paintings earmarked for disaster preparedness must carry meaning for a great number of people in addition to their artistic merit. The Finnish National Gallery comprises three museum units: The Ateneum Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum. The National Gallery is responsible for maintaining and adding to a collection spanning some 40,000 works in addition to archival material. Ateneum is tasked with portraying the development of Finnish art, from the early 1800s up until the 1960s.

Kuvassa Helene Schjerfbeckin Toipilas
Helene Schjerfbeck’s The Convalescent (1888) is one of the paintings considered to belong to the 'golden age' of Finnish art, spanning from the mid-1800s through the 1920s. Image: Ateneumin taidemuseo

Museum director Susanna Pettersson points out that a collection is always about choice. Someone has decided to display one work instead of another.

“It’s important to have deep knowledge--to know what we have and how the history of Finnish art can be complemented,” she says. Some classics are so beloved that visitors would revolt if they were removed, Pettersson explains. One such work is The Fighting Capercaillies (1886) by Ferdinand von Wright.

Taistelevat metsot
The Fighting Capercaillies (1886) by Ferdinand von Wright. Image: Kansallisgalleria

The Fighting Capercaillies has enjoyed phenomenal popularity and has been reproduced on key chains, mouse pads, magnets, mugs, tote bags and boxes of chocolate. It is the most copied work of art in Finland, according to the Finnish National Gallery.

But why do some paintings reach stardom--do people get trapped in a habit? Pettersson says many famous paintings are intertwined with the museum itself, which opened in 1888. It was the first time there was an opportunity in Finland to display large works of art. As the years passed, many paintings from that time were reproduced countless times in textbooks and as postcards and posters.

While iconic status is built over years, Pettersson points out that Hugo Simberg’s Towards the Evening (1913) has became enormously popular though Ateneum acquired it just a few years ago.

Hugo Simberg: Iltaa kohti (1913)
Hugo Simberg's Towards the Evening (1913). Image: Yehia Eweis / Kansallisgalleria

While Pettersson says it’s impossible to say which works at Ateneum will draw visitors 500 or 1000 years from now, she says a painting’s allure lies in telling a bigger story than what's depicted on canvas. Important paintings create a metastory--a story within a story. Maybe these paintings offer onlookers a window into themselves, their emotions, or their lives, Pettersson proposes.

“Why do people still flock to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris?” she asks. "There’s something about these pieces that make them special."

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Lemminkäisen äiti 1897
Lemminkäinen's Mother (1897) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Image: Ateneum

But how will Ateneum’s paintings resonate with people in the future? How do we see Lemminkäinen’s Mother if we haven’t read the poem in the national epic Kalevala? While Pettersson says understanding context is important, art can still be appreciated for its own sake.

“How many of us today are familiar with the biblical motives underlying Renaissance paintings? We can appreciate them even if we're missing a piece of the puzzle.”

Digital revolution

Burning the Brushwood (1893) by Eero Järnefelt is one of the ultra-high resolution artworks in the Google Art Project. Today museums and libraries are digitizing millions of works of art, making it possible for people to explore cultural treasures in high detail without getting off the sofa.

Eero Järnefelt: Raatajat rahanalaiset/Kaski (1893).
Burning the Brushwood (1893) by Eero Järnefelt. Image: Hannu Aaltonen / Kansallisgalleria

“While technology can help advance conservation, digitized work will never substitute an original. There’s a magic that happens when a viewer locks eyes with an authentic piece of art. As long as the roof doesn’t leak and the walls are intact, the paintings will be alright," says Pettersson, drawing parallels to medieval church frescos which have survived for centuries.

"People intent on stealing are our biggest threat yet," she notes.

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