May 1999                                 

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Refining a two-by-four

Editorial by Panu Minkkinen

Facade 2.gif (21484 bytes)Surprising as it may seem, there is a striking similarity between tackling crime as a social problem and running a cultural institute: everyone -- including myself -- knows how to do it better.

This situation inevitably results in conflicting expectations and wishes that are impossible to fulfil without losing one's own objective and purpose. One has to know, therefore, what one does and why. The initial question is: Who are we? What is the Finnish Institute? What do we do and why?

The existence of an institute such as ours is not and, indeed, should not be self-evident. The criticism raised by those funding us -- in our case the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture -- usually relates to the problem of overlaps. We must, accordingly, be able to define the specific task of the Institute. During the past three months, we have been developing a diagnosis of sorts and looking into a few possible remedies as well.

One possible reply to the question of our identity and the problem of overlaps can be formulated by having a look at our major 'partners in crime' and their work. The cultural mission of the Finnish Embassies in the UK and Ireland is to promote awareness of Finnish culture and its history in the respective countries. For the embassies, culture seems to be a vehicle of 'Finnish interests'. In addition, there are institutions and societies (the Finn-Guild, the Anglo-Finnish Society, the Sibelius Society, to name but a few) that serve primarily the expatriate communities in the UK and Ireland and other close friends of Finland. Their programmes are often substantially Finnish in that they deal mostly with the country and the people that live there. And, lastly, the mission of the British Council and its Irish counterparts is to enhance awareness of British or Irish excellence in science and culture among Finns (and others).

Who are we, then? Once the possible overlaps have been singled out and eliminated, what is there left for us to do?

First, our client is not a country or a nation but individual people. Our aim is to serve the diverse cultural and scientific agents and experts in Finland by facilitating the exchange of ideas and projects with colleagues in the UK and Ireland. Our ultimate objective is to integrate such agents into British and Irish societies, and after our services as 'midwife' have been rendered, we hope to withdraw and see the projects prosper on their own.

Secondly, a project need not tell anything about Finland or Finns as such. Our aim is to give the general public in the UK and Ireland access to cultural and scientific achievements of Finnish origin, but the single criterion for choosing the projects that we get involved in is the quality of the work involved. We are convinced that the public desires excellence, not 'general information'.

And finally, we promote Finnish excellence in the UK and Ireland, not vice versa. This is the so-called 'travel agency' dilemma that most institutes such as ours face. We are not a general gateway to the UK and Ireland for Finns.

So, according to this diagnosis -- it is loosely based on the encouraging results of my predecessor Henrik Stenius's efforts to modernise the Institute -- we are a bit like a rough piece of wood, a robust two-by-four, working well in particular circumstances, albeit unrefined. The remedy that we have come up with is also snitched from another source: the British Council. The BC calls its recent attempts to rationalise its strategies and policies 'honing', in other words, polishing and burnishing an incomplete tool. Or to put it yet another way, we are 'branding' the Institute. And 'honing' is always 'honing down', that is, rationalising work, focusing our agenda, concentrating resources, targeting specific audiences, and so on.

To recapitulate all this in a drummer's metaphor: "Less is more."

Some things will remain more or less the same. During the next three years, we will, for example, develop and improve the educational and information services that the Institute has provided. The biggest change will be in our programme of activities. The cultural programme will continue to focus on contemporary living culture with a special emphasis on fringes and margins. The scientific programme will concentrate on the human sciences, an area where we see a genuine demand in the UK and Ireland and Finnish expertise to match it. And finally, the information programme will involve the digitalisation of our information output. A gradual shift will take place from printed material such as this Newsletter -- it may be one of the last printed editions -- to the electronic media that offer genuine possibilities for imagination and innovation.

And just in case anyone thinks that this 'fascinating and challenging strategy' is too thrilling, it will be accompanied by much sweat and heartburn: the broadening of the financial infrastructure, project-oriented budgeting, Euro-bureaucracy, the modernisation of financial administration, and so on.

This, I'm afraid, is the director's lot.

panu.minkkinen@finnish-institute.org.uk


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