The status of the Estonian National Museum (ENM) within the sphere of Estonian culture is more than just that of an ordinary museum. Understanding the unique position of the ENM provides a glimpse into the beginning of the creation of our national cultural identity and a brief overview of the historical development and personality of Estonia’s “memory landscape” (Rudy Koshar).
As with many other European nationalities, the birth of the Estonian nation stretches back to the 19th century –– to the golden age of the “invention of traditions” (Eric Hobsbawm) and the “creation of national identities” (Anne-Marie Thiesse). In the second half of the 19th century, folklore –– “the authentic voice of our unlettered ancestors” (David Lowenthal) –– became the main basis of national sentiment, princely collections were converted into public museums and a collective memory replaced the memory of individuals.
Although the role played by 18th century Baltic-German homme des lettres in the process of the creation of our national identity cannot be underestimated, in the broadest sense, the efforts of Estonian pastors, writers and publicists were the driving force behind the emergence of a self awareness and a new conception of the past between the years 1860-1890. This period gave birth to writings, which became fundamental national texts for the Estonian people (led by the national epic “Kalevipoeg”, compiled by Fr. R. Kreutzwald), and around which a national identity began to be formed.
National identity is inseparably tied to historical memory; every culture supports itself with a unified understanding of the past –– a narrative connecting the people as continuous participants on the historical stage. Each culture has its own historical mythology, heroes and legendary moments from the past; regular remembering and visual preservation of these unifies a people and legitimises their present day activities. No society can survive without a common past. The creation of a common past is a continual process, a difficult “memory-work”, during which it becomes clear that certain elements of the past need to be preserved for the future and other elements forgotten.
Repetition and continuity best characterise the historical memory of a nation. All known events and heroes ingrained in history present themselves like separate parts in a meaningful chain. The authors from the second half of the 19th century onward stress the historical continuity of the Estonian people. In the 1920s and 1930s, the foundation of their historical memory became cemented in place. The basis of this was the fight against the Germans and for independence. All of the larger or better-known rebellions were grouped together; battles and conflicts were joined and formed into one great battle. It is understood that the battles at Ümera (1210) and Paala (1217) continued again in the glow of the Jüriöö fires (1343). They came to life once more at Pühajärv (1841) and Mahtra (1858), and finally found victory at the battle of Võnnu (23 June 1919). This construction was given its official form in 1934 when the battle of Võnnu was declared National Victory Day.
If the creation of a common historical memory unified the people, then the physical burgeoning of national identity was shaped by two general actions at the end of the 19th century: The collecting of folklore and the registering of national antiquities. In 1888, pastor Jakob Hurt (1839-1907), simultaneously published the article “A couple of requests to the more enthusiastic sons and daughters of Estonia” in the newspapers Olevik and Postimees, in which he called upon the entire Estonian people to begin collecting and writing down Estonia’s cultural riches, which included old songs, riddles, proverbs, etc. Hurt’s call started the entire country collecting, the result of which became the basis for one of the most representative folkloric collections in the world. Hurt received, as a result of the efforts of his co-workers (nearly 1400 individuals all over the country) and college students sent to work on the task, 114,695 pages of folklore from all different genres and dialects. At the same time, schoolteacher, Jaan Jung (1835-1900), started a widespread campaign to register Estonian antiquities and this also grew into a national movement. Jung was successful in creating a widespread network of correspondents who provided him with information concerning nearly five hundred historical memorials in Estonia. The registration and protection of antiquities continued well after independence was achieved, and reached its peak in 1925 with the passing of the Heritage Conservation Act. The collection of folklore also peaked at the same time, with the establishment of the Estonian Folklore Archive in 1927.
These two undertakings both operate on a deeper level as parts of a single assignment: just as the Estonian soul was sought in folklore, the grandness of their past had to be reflected in archaeological antiquities.
But folk history does not hang in the air; rather it is preserved in concrete lieux de mémoire, “sites of memory” (Pierre Nora). Under this idea belong several institutions (museums, archives, and libraries), events (national holidays, memorial days, and ceremonies), physical places (monuments, cemeteries, and memorials) and symbols (medals, national symbols and national anthem). “Sites of memory” are support points for our historical knowledge, which simultaneously store and shape our view of the past. As a whole, these “sites of memory” in their own way form a “memory landscape”, upon which the collective memory of every culture is upheld.
Among different “sites of memory”, museums play a traditional key role. Museums bring together the most important parts of a nation’s material past, as a general rule, basing their choices on the dominant historical memory. The museums that were born during this period of national awakening became inseparable participants in the process. The museum not only preserves the peoples past, but also simultaneously constitutes it.
In the Estonian cultural sphere, the ENM, established in 1909, became the museum constituting the nation. The idea for creating the museum first came about some time earlier, in the second half of the 19th century. The idea was promoted, among others, by the important cultural figures Jaan Adamson, Carl Robert Jakobson, and Johann Köler. The establishment of the ENM did not take place until the library of folklore that Jakob Hurt had gathered was given to the people after his death in 1906. The museum was then dedicated to his memory. The first activities undertaken by the ENM were the collection of folksongs and antiquities, in other words, completing the work that Hurt and Jung had begun. In addition to this, Estonian art was collected and a library collection was assembled. The collecting work was successful and wide-ranging in the early years of the museum, and in this manner 15,000 items were collected in the ENM’s first four years of operation.
In others words, the entire national historical memory of the Estonian people, as much as had been collected up to that point, was assembled within the ENM. This included folklore (oral culture) as well as antiquities (material culture). In the Estonian “memory landscape” the ENM became the strongest monument –– a unique “national storehouse”. In 1922, the museum was given the Raadi estate manor house, which has since that time been inseparably tied to the identity of the ENM.
The ENM has, in spite of name changes, relocations and reorganisations, preserved its symbolic status in the Estonian cultural sphere to the present day. It was fitting then that in the second half of the 1980s, when the first political winds of change began to blow, that the ENM once again became involved in reinforcing the national identity. The original name of the museum, which had been changed during the Soviet occupation to the ESSR National Ethnographic Museum, was already restored in 1988, and to facilitate the construction of a new museum on the original site at Raadi, money was collected and a considerable proportion of the population took part.
In planning the future of the ENM, one cannot ignore its past. The ENM is not just a place where Estonian culture is displayed, but rather is itself one of the most important displays of Estonian culture. It is clear that today the golden age of nationalism is now behind us, and that a museum dedicated to displaying objects from a single nationality (and other Finno-Ugric nations) does not fit in with the terrain of other European museums. The ENM’s future should be, before all else, to operate as an ethnological museum with an open spirit and a diverse collection, which will gather, store, research, and display different cultural inheritances, not so much on a national as a scientific basis. But also, the ENM should preserve the knowledge of its historical role in the creation of the Estonian nation and through its collection investigate and display this role.
Historian Marek Tamm, Tallinn, May 20, 2005