The Estonian Open Air Museum, founded in 1957, is the main open-air museum in Estonia,and its task is to collect, study and exhibit the typical and best examples of traditional rural architecture from all over the country. At the Museum’s site, the translocated farmhouses and single architectural objects, together with everyday household utensils, introduce the lives of different social groups of peasantry from the nineteenth century till the 1930s.
Yet at the same time, a considerable number of quite well-preserved historic farm buildings can still be encountered in rural areas all over Estonia and the museum’s mission is to help bring them back into renewed active use. Therefore, starting from 2006, the museum has become more focused on preserving rural architecture in situ, as much as this is possible, rather than transferring numerous new sample buildings to its own territory. This means that, besides research work, the open-air museum has acquired a new role to consult homeowners and encourage them to restore their historic buildings.
Along with the stabilization of Estonian society from 1991 onwards, and as a counterbalance to globalization, people have started to pay more attention to local heritage and everything carrying their identity, including traditional architecture and landscapes. In the current century, more and more owners of historic rural buildings, as well as builders, engineers, architects, and officials of heritage and environmental protection, have contacted the museum in order to preserve the copious quantities of architectural heritage in rural areas. These people need competent advice, expert assessments and practical training.
In this field the museum can, first of all, have an advisory role. Yet all activities related to offering any kind of advice or consultations require thorough research before they can go ahead. This is why the Estonian Open Air Museum launched a programme by the name of Rural Architecture and Rural Landscape: Research and Maintenance. 2007–2010, led by the Ministry of Culture. Today, this programme of rural architectural preservation has gone through its second phase: the last development plan covered the period 2012–2015. Since 2012, a group of five people has been working within the museum as a separate unit, as the Centre of Rural Architecture at the Estonian Open Air Museum, providing a constantly available counselling service.A significant trend in today’s extensive construction activity is the renewal of old houses. Many facilities, having stood derelict, are being converted into modern dwellings or summer homes. Therefore, people need more and more practical advice and good examples when they are refurbishing their old rural houses.
Starting from 2006, the Estonian Open Air Museum has organized different practical training courses at its own site. At first they were mainly about building stone and wooden fences, but from 2008 onwards, the topics of sessions have become more diverse – timberwork (renovation and building of log walls and different kinds of timber constructions), restoration of windows and doors, traditional methods of finishing (plastering, painting, paint making, etc.), renovation of limestone and granite (natural stone) walls as well as roofing (constructing reed-thatched and wood shingle roofs). Within the variety of different courses one can even learn how to dismantle and refurbish a traditional barn oven.
By now, the Estonian Open Air Museum has further extended its activities and aims to contribute to the preservation of historic and attractive environments beyond the territory of the museum by organizing different specific courses in local areas.
In Estonia, the owners of rural built heritage are not entitled to any financial support for the maintenance of their buildings (except for the owners of historic monuments). We can offer them immaterial support by means of training courses and consultations. So, the primary aim of the training days is to show homeowners how to execute simpler jobs in refurbishing their old houses on their own, as it is inherent in Estonians to do things with their own hands. At the same time, they are given detailed instructions on what they can demand of experienced masters, in case they choose to order some work from them.
We encourage house owners to use old methods and materials but also put to use new materials and technologies, and combine old and new. We do not seek to preserve Estonian rural landscapes by conservation, as if they were part of a museum, but rather try to adapt old buildings to modern requirements (energy efficiency, new environmental requirements, etc.), so that their historic value can be preserved. Within the project, house owners are taught both practical skills for renovating built heritage (use of traditional materials with traditional methods, etc.) and for the application of new technologies.
All the training courses, both theoretical and practical, are conducted by specialists in relevant fields. In addition to practical knowledge, the house owners are provided with a wider ethnological and art-historical background. The majority of such training days take place on farmsteads, where the created values persist.
Between 2008 and 2015, the Centre of Rural Architecture organized more than 100 practical training courses (with ca 1,900 participants) and 70 seminars (with more than 3,800 participants). Additionally, in cooperation with several partner organizations, plenty of similar events are carried out in different places every year.
The Centre of Rural Architecture has published a widely used handbook Vana maamaja (Old Rural House, 2012) and, in cooperation with the Harju County Museum, a brochure titled Väärtused vanas majas (Values in an Old Rural House, 2013). We have also made educational videos about building a wood shingle roof, Laastutalgud (Wood Shingle Bees, 2008), and restoring windows, Egon Kochi akende restaureerimine (Restoration of Egon Koch’s Windows, 2013). Travelling exhibitions on various subjects under discussion are organized each year.
Besides the official home page of the museum, our main communication channels are the blog of the EOAM Centre of Rural Architecture and our own Facebook page, as well as the constantly growing mailing list.
In organizing extensive training programmes, the Museum of Vernacular Architecture has grown far beyond its borders and reaches all over Estonia. Special courses in local areas are based on case studies, in which participants can learn by doing and thus contribute with their work to the preservation of particular structures. These training sessions may be interesting and educational, yet people get more inspired by the idea that their work leaves a concrete mark and helps to protect rural heritage. It is namely the owner’s protection that serves as the main basis for preserving our rural architectural heritage in situ.
Well maintained settlements and landscapes serve as a precondition for the balanced development of tourism, employment and, through this, also whole rural areas. This connects young people to their ancestors’ homesteads, and contributes to a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way of life.
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