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Situated on a former Soviet airfield and created by a multinational team in the middle of nowhere, Estonia’s national museum is an unlikely success
It is unusual to put a museum at the end of a runway, still more if it also straddles a chain of ornamental lakes, but then the Estonian National Museum is not a usual sort of institution. Its past is wrapped up with that of the country itself. Now it somehow has to represent the complex and precarious history of Estonia, in a fraught present, with a combination of pride and sensitivity.
For a European country to build a national museum at this moment, when nationalism is taking new and unpredictable forms, is perilous. If Russia were to invent such a thing now, it would look like another form of aggressive aggrandisement; if Britain, an episode of querulous post-Brexit blue-passport patriotism; if Germany, it would raise issues too agonising for a single museum to handle. Estonia, a country of 1.3 million, whose two periods of independence – between the wars and since 1991 – add up to less than 50 years, and which still has grounds to be nervous of its neighbour Russia, has reason to define and assert itself with a museum, but it also has to tread cautiously.
The idea of a national museum has been linked to the idea of Estonian independence for more than a century, ever since a group of nationalist-minded intellectuals decided to create such a thing. Since then the fluctuating fortunes of independence, war and occupation have caused the collections to be housed in different places, to be dispersed and reassembled. Under postwar Soviet occupation the contents and concept of the museum were threatened. In the late 80s the call to reinstate the museum was part of a new campaign for freedom. The new €70m building is the fulfilment of this desire, after many years of debate and interruptions since Estonia won back independence in 1991.
Its location, according to the usual logic of maximising visitor numbers, is near-suicidal. It is not in the capital Tallinn but 190km away in the second city, Tartu (population 100,000), and not precisely there either but a 2km journey through sometimes brutal weather from the centre. But what the site lacks in accessibility it makes up for in significance: it includes the remains of a manor house, wrecked in 1944, in which the collections were housed between the wars. It also includes an airstrip, with associated earthworks for protecting warplanes, used by the Soviet military. With the aircraft roaring over the ancient university town of Tartu, it was a symbol of the hatefulness of occupation. […]