The Didrichsen Art Museum, 2014. Photo: Rauno Träskelin.
The Didrichsen Art Museum, 2014. Photo: Rauno Träskelin.

The renovated Didrichsen Art Museum is flourishing in Revell’s architecture

The Didrichsen Art Museum in Helsinki has turned a new leaf. After repair and alteration works the museum reopened with an Edvard Munch exhibition. Paula Holmila writes about the renovated museum in the newest Finnish Architectural Review 6/2014.

A Thriving Private Museum

Paula Holmila

The Didrichsen Art Museum has reopened after extensive refurbishment that aimed to make the museum more functional without interfering with Viljo Revell’s architecture. Completed in 1957, the building was originally the home of Marie-Loise and Gunnar Didrichsen and their four children. Viljo Revell (1910–1964) finished the design of the extension, the museum wing just before his death and he never saw it complete – just like he never saw the Toronto Town Hall. Since 1993, the entire building has served as a museum, still cherished and managed by the Didrichsen family.

Revell’s architecture gives space to art. It is subtle enough for showcasing art of any period.

Maria Didrichsen, Chief Curator of the museum, says she admires the restrained and timeless quality of Revell’s architecture. “It gives space to art. It is subtle enough for showcasing art of any period.” In 2010, a thorough condition survey was carried out in the building and it became apparent that a renovation should not be postponed. “We always thought that the quality of building in the 1950s would be high and sustainable, but, unfortunately, we discovered that corners had been cut in, for example, roof insulation.”

The lounge and library area remind of the original private house of the Didrichsens. Photo source: Didrichsen Art Museum.

The lounge and library area remind of the original private house of the Didrichsens. Photo source: Didrichsen Art Museum.

It was decided that also some functional changes would be carried out, which we regarded important as well. The former caretaker’s dwelling was converted into a museum shop with access from the entrance, and the arrangement also provided a solution for adding a lift, disabled toilet and other accessibility features. Downstairs, the spaces that were originally Marie-Loise Didrichsen’s bedroom and a small living room, were combined and converted into a meeting room, which the museum previously lacked. The architect commissioned to oversee the drafting stage was Tuula Revell, daughter of Viljo Revell. “We felt that she would have a better insight into her father’s intentions than anyone else,” Maria Didrichsen says. The project was then finalised by architect Kari Leppänen.

Armoured glass protecting the treasures

Other alterations were made to the outdoor spaces and the security. Simultaneously with the planning of the refurbishment, negotiations were taking place with various institutions on displaying the works of Edvard Munch, which are now on display at the museum. The window panes had already been ordered, when the negotiation partners in Norway and Sweden in particular communicated their extremely strict security conditions for the loans of masterpieces.

Didrichsen Art Museum after renovation, 2014.

Didrichsen Art Museum after renovation, 2014. Photo: Rauno Träskelin. Source: Didrichsen Art Museum.

“We realised that if the Swedish museums are insisting on thick armoured glass now, other lenders will probably expect the same in the future,” Didrichsen says. “One of our main goals as a museum is to display high-quality international art, so we decided it was best to step up the level of our security systems to what would be acceptable to our Swedish counterparts. Now, nothing will be able to penetrate that glass, so displaying works by masters such as Gauguin should be possible, at least from the security perspective.”

The original wooden window frames could not have withstood the weight of the thick glass, so the white-painted wooden frames were replaced by steel ones. Maria Didrichsen assures that the difference cannot be seen. The project also involved a great deal of discussion with the authorities to finalise the designs, but Didrichsen sees this as a positive, as expert input. “Happily, we had allocated a generous amount of time for the design stage. The final solutions often turned out to be much better than what had first been suggested.”

Villa Didrichsen (1957) and the Art Museum extension (1964? provide a fine example of Revell's sophisticated villa architecture.

Villa Didrichsen (1957) and the Art Museum extension (1964? provide a fine example of Revell’s sophisticated villa architecture.

The Didrichsen Art Museum in wintertime.

The Didrichsen Art Museum in wintertime.

The museum funding relies on admission fees, the museum shop sales and the state grant, for which the museum became eligible ten years ago. Sometimes, expenses are also covered by liquidising some assets. The refurbishment cost five million euros, of which the state and the City of Helsinki together footed approximately three million and the Didrichsen Museum Foundation and a number of private companies the rest. The security system upgrade added an extra half million euros to the costs. Maria Didrichsen is confident that it was a wise investment for the future.

Emphasis on changing exhibitions

One in ten of the around thousand works in the museum collection are sculptures, and the section of historical, particularly Central and South American pre-Columbian, art is considerable. The museum has shifted its focus and resources from expanding the collection onto exhibition activities. With each changing exhibition, a catalogue will be published, as exhibitions come and go but publications remain. The Friends of the Didrichsen Museum organise fundraisers and sometimes donate works to the collection.

The improvements carried out in the course of the renovation were also made to the garden with the familiar 14 works by masters such as Henry Moore and Eila Hiltunen. An art path was built around the museum. The outdoor sculptures were given more space and their number was increased. The museum collaborated with the Association of Finnish Sculptors and together they came up with the idea of asking artists for works for deposit. As a result, the garden also has changing works on display. Currently, the deposited works include those by Matti Peltokangas, Jenni Tieaho and Veikko Nuutinen, as well as by Tilla Kekki, whose two works are planned to be acquired into the museum collection. The museum cannot purchase all of the deposited works but has promised to pass on any information to potential buyers. “We do not sell these works ourselves and do not charge a commission if a sale takes place, but we would be delighted if our visitors showed interest in buying a deposited work.” The main purpose of the sculptures, however, is to be on display for the benefit of the public.

Text by Paula Holmila, a cultural journalist who writes and makes documentaries on architecture, art and culture in general.
Re-published by courtesy of the Finnish Architectural Review.

Tilla Kekki: Mama Africa & Mama Europa. Photo source: Didrichsen Art Museum.

Tilla Kekki: Mama Africa & Mama Europa. Photo: Susanna Lehtinen. Source: Didrichsen Art Museum.

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