The collection of the Nikkilä mental hospital serves as a starting point and inspiration for the exhibition. The Nikkilä hospital (1914–1999) in Sipoo, owned by the City of Helsinki, was the largest mental hospital in Finland. Photo: Maija Astikainen

New Helsinki City Museum exhibition shows what insanity feels like

The Broken – A Shattered Mind exhibition, opening at the Helsinki City Museum on 22 April 2022, showcases the drawings, paintings and crafts made by the patients of Nikkilä Psychiatric Hospital. The exhibition is one of few instances focusing on the experience of mental health patients. The comprehensive exhibition is implemented together with several partners, and its themes will also be covered in various events throughout the spring and summer.

The exhibition Broken – A Shattered Mind delves into mental health issues as both a personal and social phenomenon and provides viewpoints into how insanity feels. The basis and inspiration for the exhibition is the collection of the former Nikkilä Psychiatric Hospital Museum, which was added to the Helsinki City Museum’s collections in 1999.

The Nikkilä Hospital (1914–1999) in Sipoo, owned by the City of Helsinki, was the largest psychiatric hospital in Finland. The hospital’s operations were at their most extensive in the 1960s. In 1965, for example, the hospital treated about 1,600 patients a day. The hospital was a place of treatment, safe haven and home to thousands of people in Helsinki, in some cases for decades. The Nikkilä collection is one of a kind in terms of scope and content, and many have expressed a wish to see it on public display. The collection includes about 10,000 pieces created by patients over a period of about 80 years.

“The Helsinki City Museum will now house one of few instances focusing on the experience of mental health patients. We have previously seen art exhibitions that focus on patients’ works, but museums have never before focused this extensively on what insanity feels like. This exhibition is not a history of the hospital or mental illnesses, but rather a place to ponder how the concepts of insanity and sanity have varied over time,” says Pirkko Madetoja, the producer of the exhibition and researcher at the Helsinki City Museum.

The exhibition delves into works by patients of Nikkilä Hospital, such as drawings, paintings and woodwork. The hospital’s everyday life is illustrated by a cage bed and other treatment equipment, tobacco supplies and regular hospital beds. The many sides of mental health are covered through statistics and personal experiences. Human figures created by comic artist Viivi Rintanen depict the different experiences of the disintegration of mental health. The two-part audio installation Hulluus (‘Insanity’) is made by Taiteen Sulattamo in cooperation with persons recovering from mental illnesses who also interpret the installation. The works by Nikkilä patients are protected by the Data Protection Act and the General Data Protection Regulation. A creator’s name is only published if it is established public information. 

“The use of the term ‘insanity’ is carefully considered; the objective is not only to talk about serious mental health issues, but also the often fluctuating nature of the line between normal and insane and how mundane things can become completely insane in the wrong context. As a term, ‘insanity’ has more dimensions than ‘mental health issues,’ for example, which is primarily a diagnostic term,” Madetoja says.

Exhibition spreads to events and networks all around Helsinki

The comprehensive exhibition entity is implemented in cooperation with Lapinlahden Lähde, Taiteen Sulattamo, HelsinkiMissio, Central Library Oodi, the Rikki collective, Youth Pride and the Youth Services of the City of Helsinki Culture and Leisure Division.

The topic will also be covered at events organised by our partners.

The drama performance Minäkö hullu? (‘Crazy, me?’) by Taiteen Sulattamo will be shown at the City Museum starting from 28 April. The performance created jointly by Helena Ryti and persons recovering from mental illnesses is based on the poems and writings by authors L. Onerva, Uuno Kailas and Elmer Diktonius, who were patients at Nikkilä Psychiatric Hospital, and experience-centric texts inspired by the exhibition items and written by persons who are recovering from mental illnesses today.

At Oodi on 26 April, we will hold a literary evening with the theme of comics and mental health. Comic artists Jenna Oldén and Viima Äikäs will be interviewed. Related books will also be on display. On 23–29 May, the Helsinki City Museum will also participate in the Mental Health Art Week event, which is a part of the 125th anniversary celebrations of MIELI Mental Health Finland. The theme will also be a part of Helsinki Day on 12 June, during which you can attend lectures about the topic at the City Museum and join a collage workshop of the Rikki (‘Broken’) collective. Later in the summer, the programmes of Youth Pride and the City Museum’s outdoor cinemas will also be connected to these themes.

Broken – A Shattered Mind
22 April – 25 September 2022
Helsinki City Museum, 4th floor
Aleksanterinkatu 16