By Charles Morgan for CoinWeek …..
Last Monday, the Mint of Finland announced a five-coin, five-euro commemorative coin set marking the 100th Anniversary of Finnish Independence. Each coin in the proposed series was designed to mark a 20-year period, with an obverse and reverse design showing the trials and tribulations of the country’s history.
The coins were designed by Ilkka Suppanen, a Finnish architect and designer whose work has been featured in a number of prestigious international fairs and exhibits, as well as at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Suppanen’s work has always been adventurous and modern, but hardly confrontational or controversial.
His designs for the 100th Anniversary coin program, however, brought immediate outrage and a swift rebuke from the Ministry of Finance, which had signed off on the designs before directing the Mint to not go forward with the planned release.
I reached out on three separate occasions to the Mint of Finland’s Communications Director Henna Karjalainen to discuss the program for an episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, but felt, for reasons of clarity, that our conversation is best represented in print.
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Charles Morgan: Last week the Mint of Finland announced that it would produce a series of coins to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Finland’s Independence. Unfortunately, quickly after the announcement and the unveiling of some of the designs, there developed a public outcry that ultimately led the finance minister to call on the Mint to cancel the program and to not issue these coins. Can you explain to me the intent of the program and why the designs proved to be so controversial?
Henna Karjalainen: First of all, I would like to make clear that we never intentionally wanted to offend anybody. And the Mint of Finland regrets the bad feeling caused by images on its collector coin series.
The Collector Coin Committee suggested the collector coin series to the Ministry of Finance, which approved the designs and now has decided to cancel it. But the Mint of Finland has not minted a single coin yet.
The images on the collector coins were designer Ilkka Suppanen’s views of the decades of Finland’s Independence.
The main idea behind the series was to confront history through achievements and difficulties, the history that made us who we are today.
There was one coin in the series that drew a strong reaction from the public; the first coin that depicted Finland’s Civil War time got a lot of negative feedback. The coin was based on a photograph from the Finnish Labor Archives, which, according to Suppanen, tells most clearly about the nature of the Civil War.
The designer Suppanen said that the collector coin was not a celebration of the Civil War, but highlighted the fact that Finland got through this difficult period.
There was a lot of history and research done in Finland related to this period of our history. However, I think that there are a lot of hidden emotions, that we have not dealt with this issue yet.
And another thing is that the image itself was a very untraditional representation of the Civil War on a coin.
The use of the photograph gave it a kind of news-like feeling and came closer to forcing us to see the tragedy that occurred 99 years ago. The aim of the collector coin was never to cause bad feelings and the Mint of Finland regrets the bad feeling caused by the images.
CM: Having seen the art that the Mint released, it seems that the coin designs depict the juxtaposition of both painful and joyous elements of Finnish society throughout the past hundred years. Was it the artist’s intent was to provoke thought about both Finnish triumph and tragedy?
HK: Yes. On the [reverse] there are the challenges that we have faced in the different decades and on the other side is the what we have achieved during the different decades. The idea was to show the whole story and the reason that why we are so happy to live in good times today is because we have survived these difficult times… but had these good times also…
CM: I wanted to talk about the other design that proved to be controversial – the one depicting the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian toddler that drowned while his family fled the war for the shores of Europe. Obviously, the Syrian Civil War has had a great impact on European society, but what was the purpose of using this image on a Finnish coin marking 100 Years of Finland’s Independence? Was the intent of this design to bring awareness of your country’s possible role in alleviating the pain and tragedy of this faraway conflict?
HK: I need to explain to you a little bit more about how Finnish collector coins designs are proposed.
There is a Collector Coin Committee appointed to mark Finland’s 100 Years of Independence and they chose Ilkka Suppanen to create the designs for the collector coins and the coins are based on his proposed designs. The designs represent Suppanen’s creative vision of the decades of Finnish Independence and Suppanen undertook significant background research for this. So, what I’m saying is that the Collector Coin committee suggested [this design].
CM: One thing that I think collectors in the United States should be aware of is that as far back as I can remember, modern coins struck by the Mint of Finland stand on the avant-garde of European design. The Mint of Finland produces some striking and often elegant coins with some of the most compelling designs that I have ever seen – so it doesn’t surprise me that the Mint of Finland would be inclined on any given program to take substantial risks – but I would have never anticipated that the Mint would unveil a program that would offend so many people.
HK: What came as a surprise was the power of the public reaction. We knew that this was a very delicate issue, but the reaction was overwhelming and it came very quickly, it was very sudden. So everything happened very quickly.
CM: Do you think the coin designs got a fair airing in the media?
HK: I think that the reaction of the media is how the media works. The reaction to the coins was very powerful and the media reported it. Everything happened very quickly and the power of the public reaction was overwhelming. We didn’t expect it to be that strong, and the media just reported it.
CM: Does the Mint intend to come back to this program with different designs?
HK: Well, we have other products … all of the coins released by the Mint of Finland this year are part of this Finland 100 Program that was organized by the Prime Minister’s office.