The Central Railway Station in Helsinki during the coronavirus pandemic, April 2020.

Helsinki City Museum documents everyday life under lockdown

The coronavirus crisis that assailed the world in the spring of 2020will be remembered for disrupting our daily routines in manyways. The Helsinki City Museum continues its mission to document the everyday life of Helsinki and its residents, even during this exceptional time. In their analysis of this historic turning point, museum staff will concentrate on Helsinki’s outreach to self-isolating seniors and changes to the daily work of the City of Helsinki’s over 40,000 employees.

The Helsinki City Museum has been saving snippets of everyday life in Helsinki for over one hundred years, and its collection already encompasses over one million photographs and 450,000 artefacts. This spring, the museum will add to its records the results of an online survey of City of Helsinki employees, diaries kept by Helsinki Helpline workers, and photos of coronavirus treatment hubs. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra’s rehearsals for their first-ever livestreamed May Day performance are also being captured for posterity.

The Helsinki City Museum got its start as a project focused on contemporary documentation. A groundbreaking project in 1906 started by the museum’s predecessor, the Helsinki Antiquities Board, hired photographer Signe Brander to take pictures of the cityscape and daily life. Brander’s hundreds of photos from the early twentieth century have since become the crown jewels of the museum collections. The history in photos project continued through the coming decades, extending to for instance photographic records of post-war building projects as well as buildings scheduled for demolition.

Under the leadership of museum director Jarno Peltonen in 1970s, the museum began collaborating with the University of Helsinki’s Ethnography Department. Together, they began an ambitious series of interviews and recordings of urban life in the Helsinki districts of Töölö and Kallio. Collections expanded to era artefacts like clothing and sandbox toys. This type of work continued through the 1980s and 1990s, for example, in photographs of recession breadlines and the acquisition of a complete flea market table of second-hand goods.

Starting in the 2000s, the Helsinki City Museum began to focus on the working life of Helsinki residents. New contributions included recordings of a typical workday in a fast food restaurant and a playgroup session for mothers and their infant children.

Documenting coronavirus-era changes

This spring, the museum will focus its documentation of the prevailing coronavirus crisis on the Helsinki Helpline campaign for self-isolating seniors, a c harity spearheaded by the City of Helsinki and Helsinki parishes. It will document the campaign’s outreach work, and gather material from the perspective of elderly who are receiving help and the municipal workers who have been transferred to assist with the vital work.

The Helsinki City Museum will also capture this year’s upcoming “Vappu at Home” celebrations by collecting Instagram photos, marking another first in how the museum records everyday history. After the May Day holiday, the museum will contact a sample of people who have used the hashtags #etävappu, #vappenhemma, #vappuatho me and #helsinki when sharing photos on the app, to ask if they will allow for their photos to be added to the museum’s collections.

Photo: Yehia Eweis / Helsinki City Museum. The Central Railway Station in Helsinki during the coronavirus pandemic, April 2020.

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