Unlike many European countries, Finland did not implement a full lockdown in the wake of the spread of the novel coronavirus. The country was recently dubbed by the New York Times as “the prepper nation of the Nordics” because it has been stockpiling food and medical supplies since the Cold War. While temporary travel restrictions were put in place in the hardest-hit capital region, they have now been eased. But institutions such as the Ateneum Art Museum must remain closed until May 13. The Ateneum’s director, Marja Sakari, tells us how it prepared for the crisis, and the importance of keeping culture alive—and people inspired—in difficult times.
When the news about the virus came from China, it was a little worrying. At the end of February and the beginning of March, there was already some discussion about it turning into a pandemic. On March 16th, we had a meeting of the National Gallery (consisting of Ateneum, Kiasma, and Sinebrychoff Art Museum) where we discussed whether we should take the initiative to close the museums ourselves. Luckily, our government met on the same evening and decided that the museums would be shut down, which saved us from speculating on the pros and cons of staying open or closing.
As a country, Finland was quite well-prepared for this crisis. I think Finnish people in general are quite forward-thinking. We take into consideration all kinds of risks. We are a small country with a small population and we are between two big countries, Sweden and Russia. So in a way we are very cautious about many things. We did have some stocks of various medical equipment, but not everything we would need to cope should we all fall ill at the same time.
In terms of Ateneum, for many years now we have had a detailed risk analysis, preparing us for all sorts of catastrophes. So we were prepared, but of course when the worst comes to be realized, it’s a shock for the whole community, and the museum is no different.
We closed the museum to the public starting on the March 17, and everyone who could continue with their duties began working from home. It is a sad thing that we don’t have enough work for our front-of-house staff because of the lack of visitors. Thankfully, we have been able to continue to pay all staff up until mid-April. However, as our income is reliant upon visitors and ticket sales, we have been forced to make cuts that will amount to all staff taking approximately one unpaid week off a month.