I was having a blast in Finland—hiking with husky puppies in Lapland, watching an international tall-ship race around the Baltic Sea, eating bear for dinner. Every day, I wanted to learn more about this engaging country with a language completely unrelated to its Scandinavian neighbors—and completely unpronounceable. The best place to acquire that knowledge is the fascinating National Museum of Finland.
Completed in 1910 but not opened to the public until 1916, the museum perfectly combines a backward-looking nostalgic trend and a forward-looking acceptance of current art movements. The result is a celebration of National Romanticism—conjuring up references to Finland’s medieval churches and castles with its turrets, granite rock-faced walls, carved sandstone, and a stone and brick tower roofed with copper—and Art Nouveau, the prevalent style of the time that can still be found in abundance in Helsinki, one of the world’s best cities to immerse yourself in this style.
As soon as I stepped into the vaulted entrance hall, I knew I’d be in for a treat. Painted in 1928, vibrant frescoes in the vault immediately demanded my attention. These works of art feature themes from the Kalevala, a 19th-century work of epic poetry stemming from Finnish oral folklore and mythology, with more than 22,000 verses. Ilmarinen Ploughs the Snake Field, for instance, portrays Ilmarinen ploughing a field full of snakes that attack both him and his horse—the first of a trio of tasks he must perform in order to win the hand of his desired maiden. Ilmarinen shows up again in The Great Pike with buddy Väinämöinen, who catches, kills, cooks, and eats an enormous pike, after which he carves a harp from the fish’s jaws and plays so beautifully that all creatures come by to hear him. I was won over even before I purchased my admission ticket.
The entrance hall leads to the museum’s exhibits that trace the history of Finland from the Stone Age to today. The area that is now Finland was first settled 10,000 years ago, and the museum follows the course of its history through exhibitions of coins, medals, armor, swords, and jewelry, from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Phenomenal wood sculptures and statues from the Middle Ages lead to exquisite Christian art like altar pieces, stained-glass windows, and pulpits with finely carved sounding boards and skillful paintings of the Four Evangelists.
Finnish folk art shows up next, with items like the lighthearted grandfather clock in the shape of a woman with arms akimbo. Finland’s long subordination as part of both the Swedish and Russian empires comes to life via historical maps and imperial rooms filled with grand furniture and rich paintings. The overly ornate seat used by Czar Alexander I when he created the Grand Principality of Finland in 1809, with its plush red fabric, double-headed eagle, ball-and-claw feet, and armrests that terminate with predatory-looking bird heads, is a striking reminder of Russia’s influence in this country that has long been the clashing grounds of competing entities, right through World War II and the Cold War. A collection of jukeboxes from the 1950s ushers Finland into a more modern post-war era of peace and prosperity that the Finns enjoy today.
Traveling around Finland for a couple of weeks, from Rovaniemi and Oulu in the north to Helsinki and Turku in the south, provided wonderful opportunities for me to experience the reasons why this country was ranked as the happiest in the world in 2020 (far above my own, which could post only an anemic no. 18) and those that made me just as happy as well. After all, where else can you play with baby reindeer while visiting the real Santa Claus? Visiting the National Museum of Finland put that all into perspective and helped me appreciate everything I was already enjoying on a much deeper level, and made me a better traveler.
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