Personal Experiences as Heritage: Transnational Minority Memories in the National Museum

by Ulla Savolainen (Helsingin Yliopisto)

In the spring of 2020, the National Museum of Finland hosted a multimedia exhibition titled Ingrians – The Forgotten Finns by Lea Pakkanen, Meeri Koutaniemi, and Santeri Pakkanen. Lea and Santeri Pakkanen are journalists and an Ingrian Finnish daughter and father who migrated to Finland from Russia in the 1990s. They were the scriptwriters of the exhibition, while most of the exhibition’s photographs were provided by Meeri Koutaniemi, a well-known Finnish photographer and Lea Pakkanen’s friend.

Ingrians or Ingrian Finns are a group of people with connections to the historical Finnish-speaking population of the historical Ingria in Russia, located by the Gulf of Finland around St. Petersburg. During the 20th century, Ingrian Finns experienced multiple forced and voluntary migrations, including mass deportations and voluntary transitions within the Soviet Union as well as mass settlements to Finland during the Second World War and the following returns to the Soviet Union (as well as defections to Sweden) after the War. Finally, many Ingrian Finns (re)migrated to Finland at the turn of the 1990s, simultaneously with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Today, the majority of people with connections to Ingria’s historical Finnish-speaking population live in Finland, Estonia, Russia, and Sweden.

As an exhibition explicitly aiming at raising awareness amidst the Finnish audience about Ingrian Finns, their tumultuous 20th century history, as well as their status as part of the Finnish people, the museum exhibition explored issues related to personal and collective memory – or the lack thereof. Especially, it focused on the history of Stalinist repressions, the associated migrations of people, and the consequences of these movements by making use of historical information, material heritage, and most importantly, by remediating personal narratives of people of different ages with Ingrian identities. Visually, the exhibition space was dominated by Koutaniemi’s photographs that presented landscapes and spaces in contemporary Ingria and in Yakutia, Siberia (where many Ingrians were deported during the Soviet times), as well as photographic portraits of individuals whose personal experiences were included in the setting.

Interestingly, personal experiences of oblivion and silence of Lea and Santeri Pakkanen were also included. In fact, they operated as the exhibition’s meta-narrative. In a video component of the exhibition , the scriptwriters explained how they came up with the idea of the exhibition when visiting Santeri’s birthplace in Russian Karelia four years earlier. During this trip, they had found a sauna built by Santeri decades earlier. Moreover, they came across a goodbye note written in Russian and stating: “goodbye grandmother, neither cry nor long for”. The note was written on the sauna’s door to her grandmother by Lea, as a child, just before the family moved to Finland in the beginning of the 1990s. In the video, Santeri told – in an obviously emotional state of mind – that finding this particular door was the moment when the father-daughter pair understood that they needed to learn more about their family’s traumatic and transnational past. After discovering the door, they travelled in Siberia, Ingria, Karelia, and Finland, documenting places and collecting people’s stories in order to tell about Ingrian Finns’ tragic 20th century history and its neglected remembrance.

The wooden door was also present at the exhibition. It was placed next to photographic portraits of Lea and Santeri Pakkanen by Meeti Koutaniemi. Although the door’s factual history was linked with the moment when the Pakkanen family had voluntarily decided to move to Finland, decades after Stalinist repression and forced migrations, as part of the exhibition the door symbolized Ingrian Finnish pasts of multiple migrations, departures and the dispersal of communities and families more broadly. Not only did the door represent personal and private family memories but also remembrance of the history of a minority group in the premises of arguably the most significant national heritage institutions in Finland. Thus, the door participated in and exemplified a heritagization process, a symbolic metamorphosis of personal and private memories into collective and institutional heritage.

By representing memories related to a minority group’s past in a national museum, Ingrians – The Forgotten Finns thus exemplifies a more general trend in cultural history museums. As part of this novel orientation, museums have begun to transform themselves from repositories of (tangible) heritage items into facilitators of museum audiences’ affective and ideally empathetic engagement with the past by creating, performing, and presenting (personal) narratives, experiences, and memories (see e.g., Vergo 1989; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998; Macdonald 2003; Witcomb 2003; Arnold-de Simine 2013; Jõesalu & Kõresaar forthcoming 2022). With an ethical aim to promote inclusivity by presenting (contested) minority memories and marginalized histories, museums have started to self-reflexively deconstruct their earlier role as institutions that symbolize, create, and authorize monumentalizing narratives of nation states or empires.

Such representational strategies and novel societal functions are not, however, entirely without problems. Although museums wish to participate in solving societal challenges, especially publicly funded museums such as national museums can be argued as still performing “a public role of remembrance in which they are expected to represent a broad social or at least political consensus, producing narratives that form an integral part of national identity politics”, as Silke Arnold-de Simine (2013, 2) has noted. In this regard, the heritagization of personal memories in the case on Ingrians – The Forgotten Finns can be interpreted as an institutionalization and public validation of Ingrian Finns’ experiences, but also as an absorption of these experiences and histories into a (more or less) homogenized notion of the Finnish nation. Although not necessarily problematic in this case – after all, one of the explicit aims of Ingrians exhibition was to promote collective awareness of Ingrians’ status as part of the Finnish people in Finland – it is crucial to note how personal memories and minority histories can be easily and perhaps unintentionally co-opted by national institutions under their homogenizing master narratives instead of being represented as valuable in themselves. More importantly, this poses a critical question regarding national heritage institutions’ ability to diversify let alone deconstruct national master narratives in the first place. After all, these same narratives form the premises upon which national museums as institutions are built.

A virtual tour (in Finnish) of: The Ingrian – The Forgotten Finns

This blog text presents some of the findings of a research article published in Ethnologia Europaea: Savolainen, Ulla & Potinkara, Nika 2021: Memory, Heritage, and Tradition in the Museum Exhibition Ingrians – The Forgotten Finns. Ethnologia Europaea 51(2). DOI:

Ulla Savolainen works as a senior researcher at the University of Helsinki, Folklore Studies. She is a folklorist specializing in memory studies, oral history, and narrative. Her research concerns the politics and poetics of remembrance related to transnationality, migration, and belonging. Currently, she leads a research project entitled Transnational Memory Cultures of Ingrian Finns.


Arnold-de Simine, Silke 2013: Mediating Memory in the Museum: Trauma, Empathy, Nostalgia. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. DOI:

Jõesalu, Kirsti & Ene Kõresaar (forthcoming 2022): Mitigating the Difficult Past? On the Politics of Renaming the Estonian Museum of Occupations. In: Kirsti Salmi-Niklander, Sofia Laine, Päivi Salmesvuori, Ulla Savolainen & Riikka Taavetti (eds.), Friction, Fragmentation, and Diversity: Localized Politics of European Memories. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 27–53.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara 1998: Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Macdonald, Sharon 2003: Museums, National, Postnational and Transcultural Identities. Museum & Society 1(1): 1–16.

Vergo, Peter (ed.) 1989: The New Museology. London: Reaction Books.

Witcomb, Andrea 2003: Re-Imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum. London: Routledge. DOI:

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Josephine Hoegaerts (April 7, 2022). Personal Experiences as Heritage: Transnational Minority Memories in the National Museum. Heritage on the Move. Retrieved July 25, 2024 from

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