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Susanna Pettersson

Born August 30, 1966, Helsinki

Doctor of Philosophy (Art History), 2008. PhD thesis title: Suomen Taideyhdistyksestä Ateneumiin. Fredrik Cygnaeus, Carl Gustaf Estlander ja taidekokoelman roolit, (’From the Finnish Art Society to the Ateneum Art Museum. Fredrik Cygnaeus, Carl Gustaf Estlander and the roles of the art collection’), University of Helsinki.

Director, Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum, 2014-
Director, Finnish Institute in London , 2013–14
Director, Alvar Aalto Foundation and  Alvar Aalto Museum, 2010–13
Development Director, Finnish National Gallery, 2007–10 
Senior Adviser, Art Museum Development Unit, Finnish National Gallery, 2001–07 
Chief Curator, Education Department, Finnish National Gallery, 1996–2001
Curator,  Education Department, Finnish National Gallery, 1992-96

Academic activities
Docent of Museology, University of Jyväskylä, 2012–
Visiting Lecturer, Reinwardt Academy/Amsterdam, 2011–

Photo: Kim Varstala
Written by Susanna Pettersson, Kaija Hartikainen (ed.)
Translated by John Calton

Museums – more than just a career

“From the point of view of museums, these are not only interesting times but also times full of change. Competing for people’s free time has got more difficult and nothing can be taken for granted. Museums are up against Netflix and washing laundry. I still believe that compelling exhibitions and the possibility to encounter authentic works of art will get people out of the house.”

The Ateneum Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery is the best-known museum in Finland, a “classic brand”, you might say, and this entails a great responsibility. Museums require professional management and diverse expertise. The most important posts are not only held by curators and scholars, but also by experts in the fields of economics, marketing, and media and communications.

Susanna Pettersson is happy to talk about the big museums as tourist attractions and employers. Museums are a significant part of the living culture industry. They have a wide societal responsibility, but they have to earn their place in the community every day.

“You have to always maintain a connection with the audience. We have to understand what is essential in this day and age – for these people. Museums can no longer operate solely based on their own knowledge and expertise. We have invited young people to plan our projects, for example.”

While Pettersson is keen to emphasise the role of audiences in determining what is important, she wouldn’t want us to forget that museums are notable producers of new information and research. All memory organisations, museums, archives and libraries, are vital in shaping our identities now and in the future.

Susanna Pettersson at work, in the Ateneum art museum. Photo: Yehia Eweis.​
Susanna Pettersson at work, in the Ateneum art museum. Photo: Yehia Eweis.​

Pettersson regards Ateneum as particularly important. The museum tells the story of Finnish art and offers new, deeper perspectives on it. It brings the classics from around the world to Finland and takes Finnish artists to international arenas. Pettersson believes that the museum’s international role has potential to grow. The Tove Jansson and Helene Schjerfbeck exhibitions in Japan are a promising start.

“One of my mentors is the CEO of a big multinational company. He told me he had been struck by how excited I always am about my job. And that is definitely true!”

Part of the living library at the Taidetta meille event at Ateneum (16.4.2014) with marketing director Jonna Hurskainen, registrar Kristina von Knorring and head of museum technicians, Isa Päivinen. Photo: Ville Malja.​
Part of the living library at the Taidetta meille event at Ateneum (16.4.2014) with marketing director Jonna Hurskainen, registrar Kristina von Knorring and head of museum technicians, Isa Päivinen. Photo: Ville Malja.​

Carrying the torch for museum research

Museum research has a relatively short history in Finland. Susanna Pettersson is one of Finland’s first scholars in the field to have delved into the topic systematically. Now she teaches and instructs future generations of researchers.

The museum research theme began to interest Susanna Pettersson even as a student. She chose to do her Master’s thesis on the history of the National Gallery’s collections.

“The professors kept warning me that it is not “real art history”, but they let me keep my topic. That’s what I am still doing. Now I get to share my expertise as a teacher and PhD instructor.”

In her licentiate thesis and PhD thesis, Pettersson focused on the 19th-century art field and its development by studying the early collections of the Finnish Art Society. She looked at the Society and the formation of a visual arts field especially through two powerful figures- Fredrik Cygnaeus and Carl Gustaf Estlander. Meanwhile she wrote a book about art collectors in 19th-century Finland.

“An understanding of the spirit of the 19th century is necessary from today’s perspective, too. The cultural foundations, which we can so easily take for granted, were established in those times. The beginning of arts education, the formation of conventions for presenting art, art collecting, the conventions of writing and speaking about art, as well as the building of a grant system for artists. All of this has a definite point of origin.”

Pettersson has also written plenty of theoretical articles in the field of museology and edited books, among them Tulevaisuuden taidemuseo (2009, ‘The art museum of the future’), Encouraging Collections Mobility. A Way Forward for Museums in Europe (2010) and Suomen Museohistoria (2010, ‘The museum history of Finland’).

“Writing out the history of Finland’s museums has great value. It was done together with the central operators and scholars in the museum field. We also collected a notable amount of memories by interviewing a range of influential museum professionals.”

Across Europe, pioneering work is being done around the theme of collection mobility. The experts in the field have sought ways of using collections better and more effectively in the 21st century. This had required not only practical solutions but also a wider philosophical framework.

“I am very happy to have been able to play a key role in the museum collection politics of this century. It is based on perceiving museum collections as one great whole from which everyone profits, both the researchers and the general public.”

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