Finland’s Museum of Contemporary Emotions

A history of the beginning of the pandemic, oragnized around emotions.

More recently, the Museum of Contemporary Emotions—a project of the Finnish government’s Finland Forward pandemic communications initiative—picked up Ekman’s work as its scaffolding. The Museum, really an interactive website, is a kind of digital archive of experience during the Covid-19 pandemic, styled with the sans-serif aesthetics of a direct-to-consumer startup and the haunting, echoing soundtrack of a post-apocalyptic Catholic Mass. The events of the pandemic are positioned on a timeline—the discovery of the virus, the toilet paper panic, the ban on events, and so on—and a click on any one of them leads to recorded testimony from Finns about the emotions they experienced at that time, along with data visualizations and quick facts (for instance: “oven-baked dishes were popular during the pandemic”). Each event is also assigned a “dominant fundamental feeling” drawn from Ekman’s six. Remote work is identified with surprise. Coronavirus testing: fear. An anti-racism rally: joy.

The Museum’s vision of emotional life is one in which, at any moment, an individual has a “dominant fundamental feeling” of joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust. This model permits some minimal nuance—the Museum allows that, for instance, “when your dominant fundamental feeling is anger, you may feel betrayed, critical, belittling, irritated, humiliated, jealous, or bitter.” But the framing makes clear that it is ultimately (and often nonsensically—is “humiliated,” for instance, more angry than sad? Was the dominant feeling of the anti-racism protests really joy?) dedicated to the idea that all emotional experiences can be distilled down to one of a finite number of basic emotions. “Show some Emotion: the doomed quest to taxonomize human feelings,” The Baffler