Monday, March 19, 2018

Tampere 1918 Exhibition– A Town in the Civil War

Recently I was visiting the city of Tampere, a few friends brought to my attention an interesting exhibition at a local museum. It was titled Tampere 1918 and held in Tampere’s main museum, Vapriiki.

A Poster for the exhibition. Source: Vapriiki
As Finland looks at the centennial of the start of the Battle of Tampere (15th March 1918), I thought it would be a good topic to look at this eye opening and wonderful exhibit.


The Battle of Tampere holds the dubious distinction of being the largest, longest and bloodiest battle of the Finnish Civil War. It was one of the most decisive engagements of the war, it saw the Reds forced unto the defensive and give the initiative to the White forces. It saw large scale urban fighting, as well as uncontrolled violence in the form of executions and fierce beatings. By the time the battle ended on the 6th April, some 820 Whites, 1,000 Reds and 71 civilians had been killed in the fighting but by the end of the war, an additional 1,000 or so Reds were summarily executed.

Today, despite the White victory, the scars of the battle are still visible both physically (bullet holes on buildings and graves) and mentally (protests and vandalized of memorials). However though, with the passage of time and a more open minded and willing generation of historians, the treatment of this conflict and processing the trauma associated with it has become ‘easier’ and allowed many to come to terms with it.

One of the many posts around the exhibition that help give information and ask fundamental questions. Source: Personal Collection

Behind the Exhibit

When the 90th anniversary of the Finnish Civil War was commemorated in 2008, discussions were held in Tampere about how the city could remember, reconcile and commemorate the War, and specifically their City’s central point.

Luckily, thanks to the efforts of those who came before, especially the artist Gabriel Engberg, who collected numerous objects and documents relating to the battle and which had been stored in the various Tampere museums collections. It was decided by the Museum heads that Vapriikki would host a new exhibition and research project based around the collections, entitled ‘Tampere 1918’. With the help of Tampere University’s Department of History and Philsophy, a whole host of researchers and Museum workers came together to produce the exhibit as well as various associated materials. The main architect of the exhibition was Taina Väisänen.

Source: Vapriiki
The exhibition was opened in April 2008, to coincided with the 90th anniversary of the ending of the Battle of Tampere. The main goal it was to show the conflict from numerous angles, as well as presenting as unbiased and fair viewpoint to the audience as possible. A book, ‘Tampere 1918 – A Town in the Civil War’ was also released alongside the exhibit, filled with numerous articles by various historians to help paint a bigger and clearer picture of the Battle.

The Exhibition overall attempts to give people a better understanding of the times and situation surrounding such a sore point and to give people, of all backgrounds, an opportunity to come to terms with what had happened.

The Exhibition

Put on the first floor of the Museum, you are first presented with numerous banners of the various workers’ groups of the city, artifacts of the Russian Empire and a opening question ‘Why Tampere 1918?’. The exhibition is divided into roughly 4 rooms and in that first room the visitor is subjected to the background of the Civil War. The precarious position Finland occupied in the Russian Empire, the geopolitical situation of the First World War and how it was affected the Finnish people. From stories of the frustrated Finnish worker to the uniforms of the local Russian garrison, it struck me with how divided Finland was at the turn of the 20th Century. One of the highlights of that first section was the giant timeline of the far wall, displaying all the events relating to the First World War, Finland and Tampere respectively between 1914 to 1918.

A collection of banners used by various trade unions in protests during the run up to the First World War. Source: personal collection
Walking into the next room, you are drawn to a little hole in the floor, within it is a bag and a knife. A guidebook soon explains that there are 26 floor showcases and each one contains recovered artifacts from the battle, with the majority being recovered by Gabriel Engberg during the Spring of 1918. This room seems to mainly focus upon the two opposing forces, how they were made up, their equipment. On walls there are pictures displaying members of the Red Guard and the White Guard, to look at these youthful men, you wouldn’t have thought they were fighting against one another, how similar they looked. A few display cases show uniforms of White volunteers from Sweden, German infantry, Red Guards and White Guards. We see various Russian equipment, showing how the two sides mainly scavenged what they could from the collapsing Empire’s military stores. Soon you are subjected to the loud boom of a canon and in the corner you can see a Russian 76.2 mm divisional gun model 1902. These guns made up the vast majority of the artillery forces for both sides during the conflict.

One of the 26 floor showcases. This one shows a Finnish produced steel helmet that was to be issued to Russian forces but ended up in the hands of both sides. Alongside it are other various artifacts found upon the former battlefields of Tampere. Source: Personal collection

The next room presents the battle, its aftermath and the atrocities committed. The various artifacts show how the battle affected all present, Reds, Whites and especially Civilians. There are a few interactive displays dotted across the room, giving a deeper story. One picture shows a lifeless child who had been caught in the crossfire between Reds and Whites and really drives home the horror of Civil Wars, especially those fought in urban areas. Photos showing surrendered Reds, executions, wounded in hospitals all drive home the disaster of war.

The last section has a sitting area and a book shelf with various reference materials for someone to look deeper into the war. It displays the aftermath of the war, the numerous orphans that occurred, the attempts at rebuilding Finnish society as a unified state, the memorials built to commemorate both sides, as well as personal stories for us to get a feel of how it was to be there.


It is easy to see why the Tampere 1918 exhibition has won awards. It is full of objects and displays to help the individual look at the Battle and the circumstances surrounding it. The fact that the exhibition doesn’t pick sides and sticks to facts helps it come off as an impartial observer. The many interactive displays, overlaying authentic sounds and highlighted displays really helps mark the exhibit as a unique look at the chaos of Civil War.

A pride of place in the exhibit. The 76mm canon; 179 of these were acquired by the end of the Civil War and were the basis of the Finnish Artillery Corps. These type of guns were also the first to fire shots during the Battle of Oulu in Feburary 1918. Source: Personal collection

The goals laid out by the team are really met, it helps one make sense of the Battle, why things went the way they did and how we can move forward. It presents the individual with a question, What would you have done in the situation?, and really drives home how things are easy in hindsight but at the time it isn’t as easy as picking a side.

It is well worth a visit, the information is presented in Finnish, English, Swedish and Russian, so it is inclusive of a wide range of people.

For information on Vapriiki’s openings and prices:


Haapala, Pertti, Tampere 1918: A Town in the Civil War (Tampere Museums, Museum Centre Vapriikki, 2010)

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