Do not always believe the community
An old man was moved to tears while visiting the Finnish Lenin Museum. Established in 1946 in Tampere, Finland, the museum was still displaying its legendary permanent exhibition, which highlighted the Bolshevist leader’s feats of strength. The man started talking reverently to the guide about Father Stalin. What are you supposed to answer in such a situation? Could you just try to wriggle out of the awkward conversation, should you challenge the old man with the help of historical research, or should you pretend to agree with him, because the customer is always right, as they say?
The sixth rule of the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums does not sound very nice from the guide’s perspective. According to the Code, museum collections reflect the cultural heritage of their community, they may include strong affinities with political identity, and the original owner of the collections must not be exploited. The collections of the Lenin Museum were donated by Finland’s eastern neighbour, and the museum was founded by local communists soon after World War II. Does this heritage oblige the museum to retain respect for the creator of the collections, the mighty Soviet Union and, at the same time, the remains of the community that established the museum?
Surprisingly many rules in the ICOM Code of Ethics seem to have been created for the needs of a postcolonial museum world. They have reined in the old museums of the colonial powers and lightened the white man’s burden: lurking in the background is a shame about innocent aboriginal peoples that have been exploited, robbed and racialised by the imperialist museum system. While this is a genuine concern, it is a poor match to the ethical problems of Finnish museums, for example. We Finns should rather think about how the overly sensitive, prim touch of today’s museums often leaves the sore points of the past untouched. In its present form, the Code mainly warns us against hurting anyone and encourages us to respect communities according to their wishes or conditions.
In addition to underlining dignity, the Code luckily states that museums should also promote human well-being, social development, tolerance, and respect by advocating multisocial, multicultural and multilingual expression. As a matter of fact, these higher values, which are based on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should be emphasised instead of the naive talk about communities. If a museum is using its collections to cover up past wrongdoings, it is acting unethically – not even the creator of the collections should be allowed to evade the judgement of history. Museums must also dare to look at their own roots.
In order to gain ethical confidence for its reformation, the Lenin Museum in Tampere sought help from a higher power – the public. A small exhibition was put up for this purpose, where the visitors could take a stand, make suggestions and vote on the kinds of things that the new museum should address. The wish list was topped by Soviet humour and daily life, the KGB, labour camps and dissidents. The former permanent exhibition did not say a thing about these. Naturally, the old collections cannot provide all this, but they can be supplemented, and new meanings can be assigned to the key works.
When preliminary information about the new content of the Lenin museum started spreading, it seems that the museum unfortunately lost a few of its old friends. Those still attracted to Soviet communism (for they do exist) are afraid of seeing a sacrilege and might have similar feelings as the aboriginal peoples unethically objectified by ethnographic museums. On the ethical scales, however, the memory of the Soviet system’s victims weighs more today than admirers of the system. For surely museums cannot just stay tactfully silent if innocent people have been killed, whether in Stalin’s meat grinder or a cannibal tribe’s cooking pot?
Museum Director, Finnish Labour Museum Werstas (Werstas opened the revamped Lenin Museum in Tampere on 17 June 2016)