Defending the Arts and Humanities (not that they need defending)

As a still relatively new person to Finnish academia, it has been interesting, and sadly familiar, recently to see discussions in the press about the economic relevance of graduates from the arts and humanities. In the Helsingin Sanomat on 5th June, Juhani Korhonen suggested (translated by a friend from the original Finnish), that “it is necessary to ask whether for example ethnology, archaeology and theater are fields whose workers we need to survive the recession”. We could guess that he may well have been thinking of the related subjects of art history and museology, too. Of course, all those involved in these subject areas would immediately disagree with Korhonen. It was heartening to see, for example, swift responses from Sanna Tirkkunen (7th June), and jointly from University of Helsinki ethnologists Professors Hanna Snellman, and Katriina Siivonen and University Lecturer Pia Olsson (8th June). The responses highlighted the importance of all disciplines for a happy society, pointing not only to the transferable skills gained from studying the arts and humanities, but also the added meaning and fulfilment to be found from attending such venues as museums and concert halls.

It is true that the arts and humanities do equip students in many ways for their future career paths. That is to say, although not all graduates of these subjects will go on to work within roles which have a direct and obvious relationship to their original disciplines, there is still a very important place in the wider workforce for graduates with such perspectives and training. Understanding where we come from, as well as where we are going, and the ways in which humanity has chosen to express itself through art and other creative means, is arguably essential to understanding the context of all that we do now. It helps us realise that nothing is ever truly “objective”, and that even the so-called “hard” sciences are socially and culturally constructed – from the questions asked of them to the ways in which they are interpreted and explained.

I mentioned in my opening paragraph that this is also sadly familiar, as for many years in my native UK questions have frequently been asked of the “value” of certain subjects. My own parent discipline of archaeology has suffered greatly, with whole university departments closed in some cases, and the tragic loss of so many continuing education opportunities and the enrichment that they offered (see Lee 2008). It feels like a well-walked path to have to go through the list of diverse skills developed (and hence the versatility of our graduates), not to mention the increasing evidence from research both here in Finland (e.g. Liikanen 2010) and elsewhere (e.g. Chatterjee and Noble 2013) that engagement with art and culture in its many forms actively contributes to wellbeing. Put simply, art, history and culture make us feel better. This has a knock-on effect, of course, for a nation’s economy. A happier, healthier society needs less medical support and less time off work. Leisure time engaging in cultural and heritage-related activities is time well spent, and we will always need individuals who are able to interpret and safeguard these precious resources for current and future generations. Other studies (e.g. Lumley 2005) have shown the knock-on effect of tourist visits to art museums, cultural heritage sites and other “visitor attractions” to the wider economy: a family having a day out to visit a museum will likely also buy from local shops, take lunch in the museum café or somewhere else nearby (in turn creating more demand for local produce), and if they are staying for a couple of days, the local hotels and “night economy” (of restaurants, pubs, theatres and so on) may also benefit.

But of course, it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, just about economic “value”. In fact, if we think about learning, expertise, or indeed anything, in terms simply of monetary value (or more accurately – “cost”), then we miss the point of what “value” actually is. The journal that I edit has an associated blog, which welcomes discussions, announcements and other content. In a very recent blog post, John Carman (2015) Senior Lecturer in Heritage Valuation at the University of Birmingham’s Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage asks very similar questions, albeit in the context of the ongoing debate over Open Access publishing. Carman states that “value and cost are not the same thing and do not relate directly or simply.” And it is important to remember this, especially in times of economic uncertainty; times when the temptation is to cut away that which cannot easily be restored. We need graduates of the arts and humanities just as surely as we need strong natural scientists, medical researchers, business developers and economists. They are part of our whole, and we would be far worse off without them.


Dr Suzie Thomas is university lecturer in museology at the University of Helsinki. She has a PhD in cultural heritage studies from the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, Newcastle University, and has previously worked for the Council for British Archaeology and the University of Glasgow. She is founding Co-Editor of the Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage.



Carman, John (2015) ”Open access, free lunches and the price of everything”, Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage Blog, 15.6.2015. Available: (accessed 15th June 2015)

Chatterjee, Helen, and Guy Noble (2013) Museums, Health and Well-being, Ashgate.

Korhonen, Juhani (2015) ”Työttömiä ’kulttuurimaistereita’ on jo liikaa”, Mielipide, Helsingin Sanomat, 5.6.2015. Available: (accessed 15th June 2015)

Lee, Richard (2008) Engaging with the Historic Environment: Continuing Education, Council for British Archaeology. Available: (accessed 15th June 2015)

Liikanen, Hanna-Liisa (2010) Art and Culture for Well-being: proposal for an action programme 2010–2014, Publications of the Ministry of Education, Finland. Available: (accessed 15th June 2015)

Lumley, Robert (2005) “The debate on heritage reviewed”, in Corsane, G. (ed.) Heritage, museums and galleries: An introductory reader, 15-25. Routledge.

Snellman, Hanna, Katriina Siivonen and Pia Olsson (2015) ”Kulttuuriala antaa hyvät valmiudet työelämään”, Mielipide, Helsingin Sanomat, 8.6.2015. Available: (accessed 15th June 2015)

Tirkkonen, Sanna (2015) “ Tieteet ja taiteet tuovat merkitystä elämään”, Mielipide, Helsingin Sanomat, 7.6.2015. Available: (accessed 15th June 2015)





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