The design museum in Helsinki has a well-displayed reference collection of Finnish design as well as a programme of temporary exhibitions. As it is celebrating its140th anniversary there is a special exhibition now of major design objects with a time line around the walls that traces the history of design in Finland. This line starts in 1630 with instructions from King Gustavus II Adolphus for a collection of historical heritage and later points include the founding of the Fiskars ironworks in1649 and the opening of the Finlayson Cotton Mill in Tampere in 1820.
What this highlights is the uncertainty or ambivalence felt by some designers. Is their role a link to traditional crafts, because part of their work is to understand the process of making, or is their work industrial and therefore mechanical because economic reality and simple practicality dictates that now most furniture or tableware has to be manufactured commercially?
A school of crafts was founded in Helsinki in 1871 but it was in 1873 that the school’s teaching collection was organised to form the basis of a Museum of Applied Arts. Many of the objects in the collection came from the Vienna Trade Fair of that year. So, at first, the idea was to teach through showing outstanding examples of craftsmanship. In 1875 a Finnish Society of Crafts was established and the Society then maintained the school and the museum.
From 1878 until 1911 the Keeper of the museum was Ernst Nordström (1850-1933) who was also principal of the craft school so teaching and learning from crafts of the past were seen as inextricably linked with contemporary design.
The establishment of the design museum in Helsinki reflects the similar history of a move from hand crafted pieces to commercial manufacture in England ... remember that the Victoria and Albert Museum was founded both as a reaction to industrialisation, with a collection of master pieces of craft, but also as a celebration of manufacturing ingenuity.
The collection in Helsinki was put into store in 1954 and it was only in 1979 that the present building in Korkeavuorenkatu, formerly the Broberg High School, was adapted for the museum. In 1992 the museum was given the status of a national specialist museum and in the following year it was separated from the Finnish Society of Craft and Design.
The museum has beautiful and thought-provoking displays and here good design is clearly revered. There is an extensive shop with an impressive selection of design books and carefully-chosen design objects for sale but I detected either a sense of uncertainty, because of the current economy, or perhaps simply a search for affirmation and support. A large quiet room has been set aside and comfortable seating and paper and pens are provided for visitors to write their thoughts down. A text, written on the wall, begins “Museums are not dusty storehouses, but instead treasure troves. For one thing, they contain stories and experiences. Secondly museums have good cafes and thirdly ... You tell us.”