29 November 2006

What's Showing at Aboa Vetus

I live in one of the world’s great museum cities, which is I why a strict accounting of the number of hours per week, or month, or year, I manage to log in the museums of Washington, D.C., would be profoundly embarrassing. The problem is that the regular round of errands and chores somehow fills every minute of every day.

As a Fulbrighter in Finland, however, I have plenty of time, after fulfilling my duties as teacher, housekeeper, and self-improvement faddist, to hit the museum trail, and I have been taking careful notes.

This is the third installment of a series on museums in Finland.

Some readers of this blog probably suspect that I have not had a single undocumented experience in Finland. At times, it seems that way to me, too. But that is not quite the case. I have not, for example, written about a trip in late October to Turku, where I participated in a seminar called “American Voices,” sponsored by Turun Yliopisto and the Fulbright Center in Helsinki. It was a great opportunity to learn more about my fellow Fulbrighters, who are a remarkably talented group with a wide array of interests, ranging from African-American history and culture to the making of rustic furniture, autobiographical writing, the treatment of autistic children, Japanese internment during World War II, and not least, NASCAR culture.

I stayed over a second night in Turku and tagged along with a family who were on their way to a museum of contemporary art, Ars Nova. I was mainly interested in their company, plus it was nice to stretch my legs, and there was the attraction of dinner afterwards. On our way to the museum, we walked past Turku’s venerable Lutheran Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Finland that has served as the city’s corporate logo for roughly 700 years.

Our path led underneath the cathedral spire and down the hill to the river Aura below. In just a few minutes, we were at our destination, which turned out to be something of an Upstairs/Downstairs affair. Upstairs is the museum of new art, which was more interesting and less intimidating than I had feared. But the real surprise lay in the basement.

There, one discovers Aboa Vetus, or Old Åbo, which was the name of this medieval town when it was trading with the Hanseatic League and serving as a spearhead of Germanic and Swedish culture on Christendom’s northern frontier. Aboa Vetus is not just a museum with the standard exhibits and labels and dioramas, but a working archaeological site. Let me hasten to say that I have visited a number of archaeological sites that welcome guests and promise a window on the past. I have been disappointed by most. And I have never been to a museum that succeeds so completely in delivering on that promise as Aboa Vetus.

In 1994, more or less by accident, it was discovered that a busy block of the medieval town, including streets and shops and part of a convent, lay under the art museum’s floor. Researchers were aided by detailed and accurate medieval and early modern maps. Once they knew there was something down there, they had a good idea what it was. And with plenty of sweat equity, they found most of what they were looking for and more. Together, the artifacts dredged up—coins and tools and jewelry, and some skeletons, human and feline—constitute an extraordinary time capsule, one that can be unpacked like a matryoshka doll, and one that contains quite a lot of urban history.

Aboa Vetus is thus not just a collection of display cases. You can literally walk the streets and cellars of the medieval town. And while the term “multi-media” is usually thrown around pretty loosely, it really means something here. There are the streets, stairways, walls, gates, and lintels themselves. Then there are explanatory films that exploit all the bells and whistles of “virtual reality.” Blown-up maps apply a cartographical dimension to the archaeological evidence underfoot. There is a sound track. There is a narrative line that recruits a fictional family to breath life into the old stones. None of these would be terribly compelling alone. But the total package adds up to quite a moving experience.

For me, the most impressive part of Aboa Vetus is the constant presence in the maps and other images of the cathedral that stands nearby still, and which, later that evening, we passed again as we made our way back to the university guesthouse. What Aboa Vetus helps us to remember is that the cathedral in Turku was originally a Roman Catholic institution assigned the mission of wresting this part of the world from Thor, a project that took many centuries. Also, Turku’s monastery and convent remind us that Roman Catholicism was no monolith. Rather, it was a congeries of religious orders, of both laity and clergy, that pulled in many different directions while pressure also was applied from the East—by Constantinople, and also by Islam. In Turku, as almost nowhere else, we are reminded that Scandinavia has a pre-Lutheran history.

Click on the title of this post for a link to the Aboa Vetus website.