Aalto University: Study project draws out the background of Amos Rex’s popular Egypt exhibition

Last winter, Aalto University’s students in art education worked closely together with the employees at the Amos Rex Museum. Alongside the museum’s popular Egypt of Glory exhibition ran, through autumn to spring 2020–2021, a Shadow of Egypt (Egyptin varjo) study project.

The exhibition was a big investment for the museum. It came to Finland from Museo Egizio in Italy. In addition to the actual exhibition, there was a desire to present also topical discussion and reflection on the background of the objects, and the colonialism of the museums.

‘We found it important to talk about what it means to bring Egyptian treasures from an Italian museum, to where they have ended up sometime in the 19th century under questionable circumstances’, says Curator of Education Melanie Orenius from the Amos Rex Museum.

With this work the museum needed some help. Aalto University’s Department of Art constantly collaborates with various museums, which is natural since its students are and will be the current and future museum staff.

‘A critical perspective is naturally involved in our teaching, so we were happy to grab on this collaboration. We have projects of this scope at most once a year’, says Riikka Haapalainen, a senior university lecturer who led the study project.

The students familiarized themselves with the objects of the exhibition, trying to listen to their stories. Who really tells whose history? What is not shown or said in the exhibition? Why is there no talk of colonialism? How to change the way the objects are presented?

Room for feelings and stories
Students were given free hands to discuss different topics with the museum employees and to determine the contents of the course project as well as the goals of the work themselves.

‘It was challenging to formulate and unravel the feelings that the exhibition brought out, related to, for example, colonialism and whose stories are listened to and whose voice and stories are left unheard’, says student Jonna Halli.

For the museum, this was a necessary exercise. This kind of discussion about the backgrounds of the exhibitions will definitely continue.”

Curator of Education Melanie Orenius, Amos Rex
The work dealt with the themes of the exhibition and the emotions and questions it evoked in different ways. Workshops were also held for museum staff to discuss colonialism.

‘The discussions we had were extensive and often tiring as well. The challenge is that we are aware of injustices, but in the end, we are only able to advance things by challenging and discussing, researching and putting things into practice’, describes student Saban Ramadani.

The work progressed and became a whole that does not give clear answers or tell absolute truths, but instead gives space to all kinds of voices, feelings and stories.

‘Our project did not solve the problem of oppression and injustice in the world, but the anti-racist work continues and must continue–in ourselves and in the institutions such as museums and educational institutions, and in society at large’, says Halli.

Riikka Haapalainen praises the students’ ability and subtlety to deal with even challenging topics. In her opinion, the solution leaves room for the museum visitors to think for themselves.

Workshops, installation and zine
The project included workshops with both museum experts and elementary school students. In co-operation with Kaisaniemi’s primary school students, a map was made in the art workshop, an opinion papyrus, which was on display in the art workshop Studio Rex.

During the last week of the exhibition, the students carried out an installation in the window of the museum, reflecting the issues raised in the project.

‘The installation is a ‘ 3D notebook’ accumulated during the project, where different reflections, surfaces, shapes, lines and shadows discuss both with each other and with the views, feelings and stories the viewers reflected in them’, says Jonna Halli, who worked in the installation team.

As part of the project, a zine was also implemented, which was distributed in the museum and museum shop. Its online version can be found on Amos Rex ‘s website.

There will also be research and theses coming later on of the museum’s internal workshops and cooperation with the school.

‘For the museum, this was a necessary exercise. This kind of discussion about the backgrounds of the exhibitions will definitely continue in the future’, says Melanie Orenius.

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