EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art - has undergone some profound changes during the past few years. In this article I will discuss the reasons and philosophy of EMMA for its development activities. In the beginning, much attention was paid to the strategy work of the museum and developing the organization itself. We asked: what is our main task, how can a museum function as its best, and how can we get all the departments to work for the same strategic goal? When the foundations are in good condition, it’s possible to take bigger steps. Nowadays motivated personnel, effective processes and cost-awareness enable that. A fluent way of working and aiming for mutual goals makes the museum dynamic and ready for innovation.
Substantially, EMMA is characterised by site-specific exhibition productions, artistic collaboration, and collection activities - which are tied into every action of the museum. We aim to be a leader in museum work when it comes to experimenting with new methods in communicating artistic work and the actual topics of art within our society – in interaction with our audiences and close communities. We believe that EMMA can set an example in the art museum sector, where museum work is done for the benefit of art, people and society.
A philosophy of a new museum concept
During the years 2016-2018, EMMA completed an innovative development project that has opened a new chapter in the museum’s history: EMMA extended its premises and broadened activities by creating a new concept entitled Aukio. Aukio is a Finnish word meaning a plaza or an open space. The original purpose of creating a new operational concept for the museum grew from the will of mediating EMMA’s design collections in a fresh way. Aukio is dedicated to the world-famous designer and artist couple Rut Bryk (1916-1999) and Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985). The catalogued collection comprises more than 5,200 objects and the archival material an estimated 20,000 documents. The collection includes unique works of art, design objects, drafts and sketches, plans, prototypes, materials and documents such as photographs and newspaper clippings. However, from the very beginning it was obvious that their legacy reaches out to today and contemporary design.
The new space was opened to the public in November 2017 and its development has continued since then . In 2018, EMMA was awarded with The National Museum of the Year Prize by ICOM and the Finnish Museums’ Association. According to the jury’s statement, the museum’s impact is considerably wider than its area of operation and through the Aukio concept EMMA has permanently elevated professional museum standards.
One can’t emphasize enough that Aukio was done in collaboration. No big steps are possible to take alone. In EMMA’s case, the project was carried out in collaboration with the Tapio Wirkkala Rut Bryk Foundation, the City of Espoo and the Exhibition Centre WeeGee where EMMA is located. We received a grant from the City of Espoo for permanent furnishing and professional gear and another grant came from the Finnish Heritage Agency for hiring a digital curator and a designer. However, the extension was designed to be very cost-efficient and modifiable in keeping with the principles of sustainable development. Improvements are continuously made in response to visitor feedback and current needs of artists shown in the changing exhibition space.
How to combine the historical archives into contemporary cross-disciplinary art and design processes, was the leading question posed for the planning of Aukio. Our concept does not have an international reference; its architectural solutions and operating model are unique. The initial inspiration came from a concept competition entitled Sharing, organized by EMMA and the Tapio Wirkkala Rut Bryk Foundation to gain new ideas for presenting and storing a museum collection and archive. The goal was to achieve a vibrant connection between Bryk’s and Wirkkala's extensive life work, contemporary design and different audiences.
The layers of Aukio
In a nutshell, Aukio combines several different elements: A unique visible storage solution dedicated for collections and archives to be made accessible to the public. At the same time, it is an open working space for collection personnel. The purpose is to make the collection and the behind the scenes work of the museum transparent and all information easily accessible to the public, curators and researchers. There is also a space for temporary, cross-disciplinary design exhibitions. The collection functions as an “invitation” for designers to explore both the legacy of Bryk and Wirkkala and actual cultural phenomena.
Aukio is laid out in a series of rings and consists of spatial elements, each of which has a specific function:
On the outermost ring is the visible storage, where collection objects are stored or undergo work related to the management of the collection. It is a non-curated area where the objects are placed in crates, on shelves and in showcases. Presentation of the collection includes digital content. This enables visitors to independently study details of the objects and the processes whereby they were made. There is an aquarium-like space where the audience can follow museum professionals – researchers, conservators and photographers – working and see how the collection is stored, studied and packed for tours, undergoing conservation or photographed.
The centre ring is a so-called working wall; where different perspectives or highlights from the collection are presented interactively. Its thematic contents vary based on research being conducted by academics, visiting curators and the museum staff. Here visitors can explore the archive by opening drawers, touching materials or using a digital application to create works themselves. In addition, visitors can examine an archive of more than one thousand newspaper clippings, view photographs or study how the artists worked in different ways.
At the centre of Aukio there is space for curated temporary exhibitions that present topical design phenomena and processes. The space in the middle is like a typical modern “white cube” but its walls are made of perforated metal plates. Visual transparency and interaction between exhibitions, the working wall and the visible storage is an essential element of the concept.
Supporting artistic processes
To summarize, the leading mission of EMMA is to make artistic work visible and its messages reachable for as many as possible. In the end, all our activities return to the very core question of the essence of an art museum. Today, a big museological discussion is circulating around art museums’ purposes. In a critical context of radical museology, we must ask whether art museums stand for promoting blockbuster exhibitions or supporting the value of art dealing with the crucial discussions in our current society. At EMMA, we have chosen the latter to be the most important reason for our existence. By mediating the work of Bryk and Wirkkala, and especially by facilitating contemporary artists’ and designers’ work, EMMA is fulfilling its institutional task as an art museum. We prefer aiming to be a leader who will show the way for the future, not only one that stays in the past.
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