From the banks of the River Aura, there sits an inconspicuous looking building complex embedded into the urban riverfront fabric of the oldest city of Finland. At first glance one can easily overlook the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova Museum passing by, but for the curious and the adventurous it would lead to a veritable treasure house of Turku’s medieval history and a temple for the contemporary arts.
Its formation and coming together as an institution is as complicated and layered as is Turku’s own history.It used to be the Villa von Rettig, built for the Rettig Family in the late 20s. Complete with english styled gardens, park and a pool, the villa was an ideal place for festivities. When the Matti Koivuranta Foundation bought the villa in 1991, it intended to place its contemporary 20th century art collections into the villa and convert it into a Museum. However upon the execution of renovations, it was discovered that underneath the grounds lay intact pieces of Turku’s medieval waterfront street, the Convent Quarter, almost dating back to the 13th century. This led to years of excavations by archaeologists who laid bare the layout of a typical waterfront street, with cellars, houses, and artifacts.
What finally emerged in 1995 was two museums, the Ars Nova for contemporary art and Aboa Vetus for Heritage, placed on top of each other, allowing a simultaneous view for the visitor for the past and present. It is rarely that museums can get so lucky! One can escape into the dark subterranean belly of medieval Turku and rise to the pleasures of contemporary art all within a single visit. It is quite a contrast and refreshing to see on one hand, the contemporary art of Young Artist of the Year 2013: Jarno Vesala exhibited on the street level with complex questions of existence and dive into the subterranean historic level to experience the life of survival of medieval residents. It has created a surprising mix of the forgotten people of the past and today’s contemporary life in the visitor’s mind.
The underground level allows one to explore a medieval street along the Aura river that has now sunken into the ground. Here one can walk through homes, shops and cellars some restored, and some in their crumbling state. The artifacts discovered from the excavations are displayed along the street in context with the houses in clean vitrine labelled boxes. Only a sense of direction seemed to be lacking, as the layout plan on paper has to be always referenced, an ideal visitor walkthrough could have been more intuitive. There has been very subtle use of technology, in fact the barest minimum. An example is a sound box of various medieval instruments, through which one could replay particular instruments of that era. The oddest of all, is an 80s styled game console standing in middle of the archaeological level with a construction game to be played with.
A virtual reconstruction of the excavation site would have been an interesting complement to the Museum, including a time-lapse video of how the excavation happened and the surrounding structures designed. It would be interesting to see how the Museum adapts emerging digital technologies in its exhibition, especially since there is a lot of potential in that field. The field of archaeology is today highly technological and advanced, and if some were to be applied to this subterranean floor could reveal a vast amount of information. This data could be further used to create visualizations and re-constructions for a segment of contemporary visitors who are more used to touchscreens and instagram. Until then, the sense of discovery will remain one dimensional. Inside here, under the urban floor of historic Turku the medieval smell is powerful and transports the visitor back to those dark ages. The lighting is appropriate, although the fixtures are exposed: dark and under-lit spaces, reminiscent of times without electricity. The only thing missing are the people, and that has been left to imagination.