History of the Customs Museum

The Customs Museum was founded in 1930. At that time, customs activity was undergoing major changes. In the summer of 1930, the supervision of sea borders was transferred from Customs to the Sea Guard. A few years later, Customs ceased its operations on Finland’s eastern land border. New foreign trade regulations were continuously introduced. In 1932, the Alcohol Prohibition Act, which had posed Customs with many tasks, ceased to be in effect. All around Finland, customs offices were in possession of a lot of old objects, some of which dated back to the previous centuries.

At first, the Customs Museum operated in the facilities of the National Board of Customs in the corner of Erottaja and Uudenmaankatu street in the centre of Helsinki. The museum collection and exhibition were one and the same thing for a long time. The Customs Museum actively collected objects from customs offices around the country and received numerous donations. The Customs Museum also began to catalogue the objects in its collection. The first object, a customs officer’s badge from the early 1800s, was entered in the Customs Museum catalogue in October 1930.

Image: Customs Museum items at the National Board of Customs in the 1930s.

During the war, bombs hit the building that housed the Museum and some objects were destroyed. After the war, there were scarce resources for museum activities. However, the collection and the exhibition continued to exist. In the 1960s, plans finally emerged for improving the operational environment of the Customs Museum. Customs leased facilities for the Museum at the address Unioninkatu 5. In the early 1970s, the Museum was open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and at separately arranged times.


Image:
Customs Museum on Unioninkatu street in the 1970s.

The location of the Museum in the second floor of a residential building was not the most suitable solution either for museum visitors or for residents. Indeed, several plans for new museum facilities were drafted in the 1970s. However, none of those plans were ever implemented. In the late 1980s, Customs drew up plans for a training centre in Suomenlinna where the Customs Museum would have been located as well. This was another project that never came to pass.

Finally, the Customs Museum was able to secure facilities of its own in the Hamilton-Polhem curtain at Suomenlinna B 20 D. It was at that address where the new Customs Museum opened its doors to the public on 10 June 1992. After that time, the museum exhibition was open during summers.

At its first stages, the Customs Museum operated under the Administration Department of the National Board of Customs. Nowadays, the Museum operates under the Communications Unit of the Administration Department of Finnish Customs, and implements the Customs communications strategy.

Image: The Customs Museum is located in the Hamilton-Polhem curtain on Susisaari island in Suomenlinna. The building in question has an exceptionally dark history. Since the 1700s, the curtain housed the Suomenlinna fortress prison. In the 1850s, the jail cell of the most dangerous serial killer was located in the building. The building was also part of the Suomenlinna prison camp that was set up after the Finnish Civil War in 1918. The building subsequently operated as an army supply warehouse until the facilities were renovated.

Collections and exhibitions

The Customs Museum is a specialised museum subordinate to Finnish Customs. Its place of domicile is Helsinki and it operates throughout Finland. In accordance with its rules of procedure, the Customs Museum maintains a basic exhibition that consists of collections, and arranges special exhibitions based on its operational plan. tThe Museum is also expected to serve historical research and training in the field of Customs activity. In order to achieve this, the Museum stores, maintains, renovates and compiles catalogues on collections. Nowadays, the main emphasis lies in communicating information on the history of the customs profession.

Since 2004, a steering group consisting of customs experts and a representative of the National Board of Antiquities is responsible for the management and planning of operations pertaining to the Customs Museum. The group is chaired by the Director of Communications of Finnish Customs.

A museum collection can comprise objects, documents and other materials that shed light on the history, development and societal significance of the Finnish customs service. A museum manager has seen to the activity of the Customs Museum ever since its early days. Decisions on future exhibitions and long-term strategies are made by the Museum steering group.

The Museum has separate facilities for storage and archives. The current collection at the Museum consists of various tools relating to customs clearance and procedures which were used in measuring and analysing goods. The Museum also has a very extensive collection of customs seals and stamps. Another important category of objects comprises uniforms and other insignia. The fourth main category of objects consists of various items relating to customs inspections. These objects also include smuggled goods. The collection also includes office supplies that have been an integral element of the customs clearance process. Since 2002, the Customs Museum has used the Musketti software for the administration of objects and photographs.

The collection also contains photographs that shed light on the history of Customs. Some photographs date back to the 1930s. In the early 2000s, the Museum started to digitise photographs. Currently, there are about 3 000 digitised photographs.

The Customs Museum also has considerable collections of documents and printed material. The Customs Museum collection is separate from the official archives of Finnish Customs. Official materials dating back to the time before the 1950s are maintained by the National Archives of Finland. The Museum’s collection of printed items contains many old legal statutes, manuals and customs tariff documents. The collection also contains maps and drawings.

Since 1992, the Museum has arranged exhibitions with varying themes in addition to the basic exhibition. In 2010, the Museum started organising exhibitions with a two-year cycle. The Museum has engaged in extensive cooperation with other museums in preparing exhibitions.

The number of museum visitors has risen steadily in the 2000s. In the 2016 season, altogether 4 500 people visited the exhibition. About half of the visitors are foreign citizens.

The Customs Museum also provides information services relating to its collections. The Museum can be contacted by phone or e-mail.

Since 2014, the Museum has communicated with the public also through social media. Several articles that focus on the history of Finnish Customs have been published. Many extensive historical texts have also been published in the context of the Museum’s work. The “Merkurius” series focuses exclusively on the history of Customs.

Cooperation in the museum field

The Customs Museum takes part in domestic and international cooperation between museums. The Museum also cooperates with museums maintained by other authorities, and with other specialised museums. The Customs Museum is a member of the Finnish Museums Association.

Since 1993, the Museum has been a member of the International Association of Customs/Taxation Museums (IACM). The Association maintains a rich heritage of customs activity in a rapidly changing world. Nowadays, the Association has 30 member countries on four continents.

The Customs Museum has engaged in extensive cooperation especially with the Forum Marinum museum centre in Turku, where objects that belong to the Customs Museum have been displayed continuously.