• Photo archive of the Governing Body of Suomenlinna/Suomen Ilmakuva Oy

Governing the Guardian

People are drawn to Finland’s most popular tourist attraction, the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, by its fascinating history, impressive fortifications and of course the many green patches found scattered around the islands, which ensure a perfect day-trip destination for culture enthusiasts and leisure seekers alike. This helps explain why yearly, around 750 000 visitors embark on the fifteen-minute ferry ride from Helsinki’s Market Square to Suomenlinna, and why taking care of this UNESCO World Heritage site is a full-scale operation.

The organisation responsible for managing, restoring and maintaining the state-owned site is ‘The Governing Body of Suomenlinna’, which operates under the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. It employs nearly 90 people around the year, with another 20 or 30 summer workers helping out during the high season.

“The Governing Body of Suomenlinna was set up 40 years ago so it’s an anniversary year”, Cultural Landscape Specialist, Iina Johansson explains. “That’s when the State thought that something ought to be done about the historically valuable islands and that’s when the history of the Governing Body of Suomenlinna began.”

Johansson recently returned from Besançon in France, where she attended a workshop as part of the EU-funded ‘AT FORT project’ to which eleven fortified heritage sites around Europe belong to. The workshops are held in turn at each of the partner’s fortifications, at which the main topics of the project are investigated. “These ‘ateliers’ give us the opportunity to share experiences and try to identify ‘best practice’ methods which can then be included in the long-term conservation and maintenance plans,” Johansson says.

One of the bigger challenges that the Governing Body of Suomenlinna faces, are the extensive erosion issues that the rather raw weather conditions and tremendous amount of visitors cause upon the fortifications and landscape. “Because Suomenlinna is a World Heritage site, means that it ought to be preserved for future generations, and it also sets a certain quality requirement for all the work we do. We have to live up to the status, which means that our efforts must be visible in the landscape, everything must remain well kept and it cannot be allowed to deteriorate,” Johansson explains.

To help maintain the site, a partnership has also been set up between the Governing Body of Suomenlinna and the open prison located on the islands. “It is a good collaboration”, Johansson says, “and an invaluable help when it comes to the renovation of the fortress walls. It is also a work preparatory opportunity for the prisoners, complete with stonework training.”

Johansson also points to some practicalities that visitors should bear in mind to help preserve the heritage site. “Visitors would do well in finding out a little bit about Suomenlinna before coming over. It is important to always stick to the assigned routes as we have a lot of areas with vegetation that cannot handle the treading and stomping and it is of course very important to pick up the trash. Because of the considerable damages that fire might cause upon the cultural heritage site, a complete ban on barbeques has been put in place, yet every year trashcans are set on fire by disposable grills. It is also important to remember that this is home to around 800 people and the sanctity of their home should be respected”, the two-decade Suomenlinna resident says.

“I think it’s the whole package”, Johansson says as she explains her reasons for living and working in Suomenlinna. “The landscape, the historical layers and the small community makes it sort of an all-encompassing experience. But I would say that the sea is probably the most important for me, because even though you’re only 15-minutes away from the city, you can easily imagine yourself being much further away.”

Text by Rasmus Hetemäki