© City of Tampere

Culture up for adoption

“Two people could go in there at a time, and almost all of them came out crying.” You might not normally expect pair after pair of weeping people to emerge from a roadside kiosk, but this is not an unknown sight in Tampere, Simo Ollila explains. “We had these visual artists doing stuff. Hanneriina Moisseinen had in the kiosk an animation about the events during World War II.” Moisseinen’s film, which follows the pilgrimage of a rural Finnish community uprooted along with their animals during the war, was having intimate screenings in the kiosk as part of the poetry festival that Ollila organises every year. “It was so moving,” he recalls, “a great piece of work.”

The idea that this little kiosk, an important part of the landscape since its erection in the 1920s, but sadly left vacant from the mid-1980s, would make a great space for art exhibitions came from Ollila’s friend, the film director Katariina Lillqvist. At her suggestion, Ollila called Tampere’s city officials and told them about the plan, “and they said ‘why not’ and gave me the keys!”

You might not expect every city to be so open about its vacant spaces – one imagines, at the very least, a long process with lots of red tape – but Tampere prides itself on matching its local cultural heritage with people and communities that have the drive to bring it to life. That doesn’t mean everything was easy. “People had been dumping garbage inside for 20 years, it was just a mess.” Ollila remembers but he and his friends quickly got to work cleaning and painting it.

From darkness into light

Tampere has now formalised this approach, not just to vacant spaces, but to cultural heritage of all kinds, with it’s ‘Adopt and Monument’ programme, and Ollila was one of the first people that the city reached out to. “Sometimes it’s the adaptors themselves that think they could be interested to adopt this building, and sometimes it’s the other way where we think a certain group could be interested,” explains Miinu Mäkelä of Tampere’s Culture Department. Mäkelä really appreciates what Ollila and his colleagues are doing for the city: “It’s a very nice thing.” So the city came up with the idea of formalising and encouraging such arrangements as a result of a visit to Scotland, explains Kreetta Lesell of Tampere’s Pirkanmaa Provincial Museum.

Now the Adopt a Monument concept is bouncing out from Tampere to other European cities. Eurocities recently featured it in the EU Cultural Heritage in Action project’s catalogue of best practices (you can check it out here), and it’s opened the door for Tampere to host a peer learning visit for other EU cities and stakeholders, starting today, under the project’s auspices.

I think they can become visible again.
— Kreetta Lesell

For Lesell, what motivates her to help run the Adopt a Monument programme is that it brings the city’s existing heritage into the light. “They are not visible, so even if people live very near them, they don’t know about them. But with this programme, I think they can become visible again.” Lesell says that this breeds greater respect for the city’s cultural heritage, which in turn creates an atmosphere in which it is easier to dedicate resources to preserving heritage.

Evolving and including

It’s an idea that is still evolving, Mäkelä explains, “We started with archaeological sites and then we started to think about buildings and monuments. Now we’re thinking – what about nature, big trees and things like that, would they be worth adopting for this kind of work?” The city has set the ball rolling, and now enthusiasm is picking up. “It was not very easy in the beginning. Little by little it started, and nowadays there are quite a lot of people who are interested in these things,” says Lesell.

One of the key tenants for the city is inclusivity in cultural heritage, so another thing  Lesell and Mäkelä want to ensure is that a diverse range of people have the chance to get involved in adopting local heritage. For example, the programme has a lot of participants who are young children involved through their schools, and also many who are in their 50s or above, but it has had difficulty bringing in the 20s-40s age group. To solve this, Mäkelä says, “we have had sort of pop-up things, to take care of a place just for one day and that’s it.” This arrangement is much more popular with those who can’t commit to long-term engagement, “so we have both kinds of activities so that many people could be part of this programme.”

Another group they want to include is migrants and refugees, because Tampere’s heritage belongs to them now too. For them, the short-term option can also work better, as Tampere is not always their final destination. There is a local stone-aged site that had disappeared beneath the greenery – “There were a lot of plants, little trees and things like that,” says Lesell. A group of 20 refugees volunteered to restore to the full sight of the community. The site happened to be close to the water, Lesell remembers, so once that was done they dedicated their remaining energy to a good day of fishing!

Give what you can

So what does the support of the city for adopters consist in? “We don’t give any money,” Lesell says, “but we do try to help them, they can always ask for help from us.” This help can take the form of assistance in applying for funding to the National Board of Antiquities, putting them in touch with experts in certain craftspeople or experts in restoration where necessary, or lending their own expertise in cultural management or events. Still Lesell laments, “It would be very nice to have a little money we can give them.”

In the case of the kiosk, although Ollila and his friends had been running it for many years, they were very glad of the support of the city. “With the aid of the adopt a monument project we could make some fundamental renovations for the kiosk,” Ollila explained. And this is not an asset which he keeps to himself, despite the work that he and his team have put into it. An add on the website lets people know that they can contact him any time to use the space. He also gives it a life beyond his annual art exhibition – something closer to its original purpose.

Punks and pancakes

“Have you heard of restaurant day?” He asks. “On a certain day you can start your own restaurant. You can sell some pancakes and coffee and jam, or some ethnic food. There might be some 200 restaurants around the city. This is a Finnish innovation and it’s just great, a great innovation! A couple of times we have had this café with great success.”

Ollila has many memories to share about the kiosk, and about the poetry festival he organises every year in tandem with the kiosk exhibition. Among a line up of great local and international poets and artists, he once managed to secure the famous British punk poet John Cooper Clarke. “Before we got him we had to exchanged some 300 emails with his manager! But when he got here it was just pure joy, he was a great guy. And he had this manager with him, who used to be the road manager for The Clash – kind of funny for a poet!”

The kinds of performances that Lesell prefers are a little less radical than Cooper Clarke’s celebrated expletive-stuffed poem Chicken Town. “We have these kids who are in first class, so they are about seven, six years old. They have a World War fortification that they have adopted. They are very proud of their work there and they invite their parents and make presentations on the monument.” It’s true, she admits, “that sometimes they can make some small damage too,” but this pales in comparison to the value that is generated by having this site back in public use. The children “are so happy and proud, so I am very happy to see that.”

Love lost, joy found

Adopt a Monument, clearly, is about more than just places. It’s about stories too. At an old stone wall that once separated the neighbouring towns of Pispala and Tampere, adopters and collecting local tales about the monument. Lesell remembers the story of one boy who told them, “My love ended at the Pispala stone wall.” He had gone with his would-be amore as far as the wall, but couldn’t follow her when she crossed into Pispala “because he would have been beaten by the boys on the other side – they don’t want the Tampere boys stealing their girls!”

For Mäkelä, this wall represents joy found, rather than love lost. “I lived next to that place for about ten years and I never knew that was there, because it was all covered by bushes. I walked just by that every day and I didn’t know about it. After adoption and the work they have done there, there is an information panel, and nearly every time you pass the place you can see somebody reading or looking at it.”

From punk poetry to lost loves and rediscovered walls, what it means to adopt part of the city is different for everyone, but in Tampere that’s okay, so long as you make it yours.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer