The Estonian National Museum has reopened in a €75m building on a former Soviet air base in Tartu, the Baltic republic’s second-largest city. For decades, the museum struggled to find a permanent home in the turbulent country, where visits from foreigners were severely restricted until independence from Soviet rule in 1991.
The museum’s reopening on 29 September was overshadowed by a furore over Reformation (2016), a work of multimedia art by the Estonian design studio Masinism lead by the artist Timo Toots. The work contains the image of a saint that some have interpreted as the Virgin Mary. Until recently, visitors could press a button that would shatter her image on a nearly life-size screen. The museum has eliminated the interactive component after protests from local religious figures.
Archbishop Urmas Viilma, the leader of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the country’s largest religious group, first registered his dismay in a Facebook post after the opening. He said the invitation “to kick the image of the Virgin Mary” was particularly offensive to Estonians, for whom the saint is deeply ingrained in folk culture. Mart Helme, the leader of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, warned in a statement on the party’s website that the country’s Russian minority would take offence.
A spokesman for the museum says the installation has been misinterpreted. It is not about the Virgin Mary, he says, but about the broader “barbarity of the iconoclasts during Reformation times” and meant to convey the moment when the Protestant Reformation toppled Catholic tradition. He adds that most visitors are not bothered by the work because they understand the museum is an educational, not religious, institution. Recent polls have ranked Estonia as one of the least religious countries in the world.
Nevertheless, Tonis Lukas, the museum’s director, decided to scale back the work soon after the opening, which appears to have satisfied his critics. “The image fractures and then comes to one entirety again automatically now, without any human intervention,” the spokesman says, adding that Lukas continues to meet with church authorities to discuss how to “show the important, though barbaric, events in our history”.
An emotional journey
Emotions surrounding the reopening of the museum are high in part because of the country’s tumultuous history. During the Soviet occupation that began in 1944, thousands of Estonians were killed and tens of thousands more were deported to Siberia. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the country’s president until earlier this year, described the new building as “a debt of gratitude to those who kept Estonia alive in darker, more difficult times”.
The 34,000-sq.-m glass building, designed by the Paris-based architecture firm Dorell Ghotmeh Tane, soars above the former Soviet airbase. “We have transformed that space…into a place for Estonians to write new stories,” says Lina Ghotmeh, one of the project’s architects. The permanent exhibitions also seek to make “peace with the Soviet past”, says Kristel Rattus, the museum’s chief curator. Several military constructions have been left undisturbed on the site, and “life during the Soviet period is naturally incorporated” into the displays.
The museum is also hosting the Echo of the Urals, “the only permanent Finno-Ugric exhibition in the world”, according to its curator Art Leete of the Department of Ethnology of the University of Tartu. (The museum previously had a Finno-Ugric permanent exhibition from 1928-1936, during Estonia’s interwar independence.) The display includes 800 artefacts drawn from the museum’s 10,000-strong collection, Leete says. Dedicated to showing the full sweep of ethnicities contained in that group, whose settlements range from Siberia and the Volga River regions, to Finland, Estonia and Hungary, the exhibition illustrates linguistic and genetic connections and seeks “to demonstrate how ethnographic display makes it possible to articulate equality and diversity in a contemporary sense”. For example, when studying gender roles, the show describes how “Finno-Ugric tribes often solved tensions between men and women through folk humour,” Leete says, adding: “We attempted to involve a lot of indigenous fun in our display”.
Timeline: A museum hostage to it's country’s history
1909 The Estonian National Museum is founded in Tartu by a group of Estonian intellectuals to preserve peasant and folk culture.
1920 Estonia becomes a sovereign state and is no longer part of the Russian empire.
1922 The museum moves into Raadi Manor, formerly owned by a noble Baltic-German family.
1940 The Soviet Union occupies Estonia and launches mass deportations to Siberia.
1941 Nazi troops occupy Estonia until Soviet forces drive them out in 1944. Raadi Manor is badly damaged in the fighting and becomes a Soviet air base. The museum splits its collection across multiple sites. Tartu closes to foreigners.
1991 The Soviet Union collapses and Estonia regains independence.
2005 The museum launches a design competition for its new building.
2016 The €75m new museum, funded by a state-run property company, opens on the site of its former home.