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The biggest cultural project in Estonian history

The Estonian National Museum, designed by three young Paris-based architects

10 min read
© Arp Karm

The museum was founded a generation later than those of our Nordic neighbours, only in 1909, but this was not to be blamed on the local people but on prevalent conditions in the Russian Empire, which Estonia was then a part of. The idea for the museum was voiced as early as 1869, and the ethnographic and folklore collections date back to 1888. After the founding of the museum, it continued to be run as a national private initiative. When Estonia became independent in 1918, this was not a disadvantage but rather an advantage as, by that time, the museum had grown into a countrywide network of collaborators and supporters and was now only in need of its own rooms in which to be housed. These were finally found two kilometres away from Tartu city centre, in the main building of the Raadi Manor House.

On the basis of the land legislation of the time, the young republic had taken over all the land property formerly belonging to the Baltic German ruling classes and this included manor houses where necessary. The von Liphart family, which had ruled in Raadi for more than a century and a half, had decided to relocate and, although the main building of the manor house was not a perfect spatial solution for the museum, its symbolic significance as a location could not be overlooked: Estonian culture moved into a space where the common folk had hitherto had no business for centuries, ironically in order to be now researched and exhibited.

Both fortunately and unfortunately for the museum, in the area around Raadi lay the closest fog-free fields in the vicinity of Tartu and which were also topographically suitable for aviation. Thus from 1912 when aviation activity started there, the Estonian air force continued to be active in this area through the whole independence period of the interwar years.

The Estonian National Museum

The Estonian National Museum   © Arp Karm

An airfield was developed in the vicinity of the manor house, which unfortunately was also considered equally suitable by the occupying Soviet and German occupational forces from 1940 onwards. Raadi remained in military use and a closed area until the restoration of Estonian independence in the early 1990s. In the intervening time, the Soviet Union had used the 700-hectare area to develop a base of strategic long-distance bombers targeting both Europe and the USA, which effectively terrorised the local neighbourhood and prevented the natural development of the town.

Due to the right timing of its evacuation, the collections of the National Museum were rescued, but the manor house itself was burnt down by marauders in 1944 and, just like many other Estonian cultural institutions, the museum was once again homeless.

The Estonian National Museum

The Estonian National Museum  © Arp Karm

The Story Behind the New Museum Home

Whereas the most important theatres, concert halls, libraries and other cultural establishments were restored in the first couple of post-war decades, the occupiers considered the National Museum to be an ideological threat and downgraded its status from the creator and promoter of national identity to a small ethnographic museum without its own exhibition space or storage rooms. The collections of the museum were stored separately in churches and cellars, and it was only the dedication of staff members which prevented the worst from happening. But it was not possible to expunge the museum and its glory from the memory of the people; hence it was logical that once the winds of freedom began to blow more strongly in the spring of 1988, one of the first public political demands made was that the Estonian National Museum be restored to Raadi.

Yet it took another generation for the new and greatest exhibition space in Estonia to open its exhibitions to the public on 1 October, 2016. It took all this time despite the fact that the need for the construction of the museum building was repeatedly decided by the Parliament of Estonia and also by subsequent governments.

When finally, in 2005, the decision was made to announce an international architectural competition for the museum building, there was a museum boom going on in Europe and the world. Amazing buildings were being developed everywhere and world-famous architects were also interested in designing landmark establishments. However, the procurement announced by Estonia attracted primarily younger and lesser-known architects. Over a hundred entries were submitted, and it was the bold vision which tested the limits of the competition conditions created by three Paris-based young architects − Dan Dorelli, Lina Ghotmeh and Tsuyoshi Tane ( which was announced as the winner. As a result of ten years of work, the finished construction is quite different from the initial competition concept, but the long period of project realisation has definitely benefited the technical and content-related ideas of the establishment. As a result, Estonian people will get what they really deserve. The cultural project, with a budget of €75 million, is the biggest to date in Estonian history.

The building which is located on a 50-hectare area, is grandiose by Estonian standards, reaching 355 metres in length and 71 metres in width. The first part of the building reaches over 15 metres in height but the interior rooms on the other end are only 2.5 metres high, with the additional architectural elements melting into the concrete surface of the old air strip (which the building has been designed as a part of). As a universal symbol the building refers to a ‘take-off’, which links to the yearning for independence of every human being and as such also speaks to every nation which has become free.

At the same time, the new building, linked to the military heritage of occupiers, ties together the good and the bad in the complicated history of twentieth century Estonia, emphasising that we need to remember everything, and who else should recall everything as an institution of collective memory but the National Museum?

The Estonian National Museum

The Estonian National Museum  © Arp Karm

What Is displayed in the museum?

The Estonian National Museum defines itself as a national museum, but the content of this term varies widely in Europe. The national museum of the Estonians is a museum of national culture, which deals with the everyday life and manifestations of everyday culture of the Estonian people throughout history. The museum belongs to the people and studies its people and attempts to bring the details and generalities of daily life closer to people. In this spirit, the exhibit excludes such personalities as kings, generals or events like wars and heroic deeds. The museum instead showcases people in their everyday living conditions in the past, so it is no wonder that we can see what people do in their bedrooms (where they spent around a third of their lives!) what they ate, talked about and who they spent their spare time with.

The exhibits of the museum are spread over more than 6 000 square metres and, in addition to nearly 10 000 items, there are various high-tech creations and unique IT-applications and installations. The permanent exhibition of Estonian cultural history entitled ‘Meetings’ is a chronological overview of cultural breakthroughs over as long as 11 000 years (including the introduction or iron, birth of the Estonian written language and education system or the arrival of the steam engine in the villages) and eleven theme exhibitions supporting this.

The latter have a multifaceted thematic approach. Next to the ethnography of peasants, attention is paid to the traditional regivärss (verse imitation of the traditional Estonian song – ed.) and the Estonian language, the life of Estonians in the parallel worlds of the second half of the 20th century (refugees in the free world, prison camps in Siberia, occupational suffering at home in Estonia etc.).

Next comes the birth story of the nation and the nation-state with its central symbol − the Estonian national relic of the very first national tricolore made in 1884, which has by some miracle survived through the hard times and still looks great. As a contemporary museum, the National Museum offers visitors the opportunity to get involved in creating exhibits. The grassroot level exhibitions created on the basis of people’s ideas and supported by museum specialists will get their very own exhibition hall.

The second permanent exhibit focuses on introducing the life of Estonians’ Finno-Ugric relatives. Finno-Ugric nations, without their own state and who are today mostly located in northern Russia and in Siberia have been the subject of research at the museum since its founding days. These peoples lack the opportunity to independently introduce their unique cultures to the world, and will now have an ‘embassy’ in our National Museum which will speak up for them and promote their vitality.

The Estonian National Museum

The Estonian National Museum  © Arp Karm

What else can be done in the museum?

The new museum building is not only unique in Estonia because of its exhibition space, which only takes up less than a half of all the available space. It was also a condition at the outset that the museum should become a multifaceted cultural and educational centre, as it is only in this way that it can fulfil all the tasks that a contemporary establishment of enlightenment has in the free world.

This means that the museum will be a home for all the arts. The building houses a 300-square metre art gallery and a black-box theatre which can also be used as a concert hall. The 250-seat conference hall will also function as a cinema and a location for electronic music performances. Another ambition is to develop into an educational temple closely connected to the general educational system and, to this end, there are up to ten classrooms in the museum. The open space around the museum includes an open-air stage and a theatre room reconstructed from the ruins of the old manor house distillery.

A unique solution to be found at the Estonian permanent exhibit are electronic labels which change into a suitable language based on the visitor’s needs. Currently it is possible to choose between Estonian, English, Finnish and Russian but in the next few years the museum hopes to make the signs available in up to fifty languages, based on the parameters of the system.

And naturally the museum building will include some of the best eateries in Tartu; there is a restaurant and a café which in addition to being able to serve 1 000 customers per day, can also cater for corporate and public receptions, conferences and other festive occasions.

Hence the building houses an entire world and it is recommended that guests take at least a day, if not two, to take full advantage of the location. There is no need to rush though as the museum plans to function in its current location at least for the next three centuries.

Source: Life in Estonia

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