Art Museum of Estonia

Sirje Helme

Art Museum of Estonia

Weizenbergi 34/valge 1, 10127 Tallinn, Estonia

Inventing the bicycle

The Kumu Art Museum, one of the five museums that comprise the Art Museum of Estonia, won the title of the best museum in Europe in 2008. At that time we had already been open for two years.

Kumu was the first new museum in the Baltic countries and probably in the whole region of Eastern and Central Europe, which we still call post-socialist. Recently the museum of modern art in Vilnius opened its doors, Latvia has made preparations for the opening of a museum of contemporary art, the same is expected in Warsaw, and of course the opening of the museum of contemporary art in Zagreb is the centre of attention.

However, we were the first ones. And our situation was somewhat different from the other countries in the region. The dream of our own national art museum had existed since the beginning of the 20th century, but the museum had never been built. Our art museum travelled from one building to another, always to an older one, where someone more important had left for a new building. The collections were based in about twenty different places around the city. The public''s connection with the museum and the meaning of the art museum in our cultural life fell constantly. Consequently, the need for an art museum was broader than just the need for a new building; it was a matter of culture politics.

The long and troublesome building process started to end in the autumn of 2005 and then the decision was made to open the museum on the 19th of February 2006.

It is nice to dream of a new museum, but first of all the question has to be answered: what is it that we actually want - what are the characteristics of the new organization that we have been dreaming of throughout the century?

The initial data taken for our starting point could be divided into two parts. First, the social situation: a) the image of the art museum among people was rather primitive - the museum was considered to be a place that stood still, a dusty and a quiet place; b) the groups that theoretically should have been supportive of the idea, such as business circles, politicians and partially also culture circles, had taken up a waiting, if not negative, attitude. It was thought that the new building would bring along big investments, but wouldn''t guarantee activity and importance in cultural life and would instead take finances away from the support of living art; c) in the art world, the expectations were two-fold - the older generation waited longingly for a certain national gallery type of museum, a traditional memory institution, where memory is understood in static and constant terms. Younger artists were, following the tendencies of their generation, interested in presenting their own history.

Second: the new building, whose creator was the Finnish architect Pekka Vapavuori, is architecturally compact and notable, but, like contemporary art museums often are, it is complicated as an exhibition space. The building itself is a symbol of its kind, playing with archetypal signs such as the circle, and local important elements such as limestone, greenish copper and, especially important for northerners, light. The projecting of the building took place at a time when the museum was considered to be a traditional national gallery and that determined the initial data given to the architect. Consequently, the rooms handed over to the curators were organized into zones in advance and are perfect for exhibiting 18th, 19th and 20th century modernism, but not so suitable for contemporary art.

Consequently, we had to cope with both of these aspects and work with their specific risks.

To do that, an organization had to be created that would offer a totally new image of the aims, roles and positions of the museum in society, and secondly, a corresponding organizational structure and programme had to be created.

It should be mentioned that, in fact, Kumu didn't have to discover anything unprecedented - everything already existed somewhere. The basic missions of the museum are written in the constitution of the museum, long discussions have been held and hundreds of articles written about modernising the museum and its operating principles, and the process of change has been especially vivid over the last 10-15 years. In addition, circumstances for Estonian museums weren't bad: the first important changes had already taken place and the bigger museums were moving slowly in the direction that the opening of Kumu brought forth very clearly. That explains the title of my presentation - we were inventing the bicycle, but its parts already existed somewhere. 

However - the situation for Kumu was special, because it had to become a representational museum for our small nation and culture; it had to bear great expectations and at the same time these expectations were mixed with scepticism. In this difficult situation there was only one possibility - to cast aside all expectations, not to be controlled by the demands and imaginations of different groups and to start completely from the beginning. That is, to start with the question of what kind of museum a small culture in the 21st century needed, what basic principles to follow and what actions would reflect these principles.

First, we agreed on the imagology of the museum: a) Kumu had to represent Estonian art as a whole, to be simultaneously a museum of contemporary art and exhibit collections that start from the beginning of the 18th century; b) Kumu had to be intensive, to apply contemporary conceptions of art to historical material, to change exhibitions and not to count on success from presenting a permanent exhibition. We launched the slogan: Kumu - museum of living art; c) Kumu had to be an international museum, to observe the local culture in the international context, to present art from other regions and museums. As a museum of a small nation, the only possibility we had was to acknowledge our national culture through vivid international action; d) the curators of Kumu had to work at a highly professional level, but Kumu as an organization had to speak with its public in different languages, in different ways. To talk about art with a seven year old or with someone who comes to the museum for the first time is very different from presenting concepts to an art expert; e) exhibition activity would be connected to research activity, and the big collections of Kumu obliged the museum to take up the position of interpreting and writing the history of Estonian art.

According to these points, a structure of actions had to be created. We knew clearly enough that the first months or maybe the first year after the opening would be decisive for our success. Kumu wasn't born in an empty space - as we know, the contemporary world is an era of supermarkets and the battle for the free time of people is tough. Where do they spend their free time? What do we have to offer so that people will come with interest and joy, and more importantly, that they will also leave cheerfully, eager to come back again? Kumu couldn't afford to wait to be discovered. On the contrary, we started an aggressive campaign even before the opening. Our value is unique - what is needed in the imitative and cloning world of today is originality and genuine aesthetic experience. Kumu had to come to the market as a young, vigorous, intensive and intelligent museum. Kumu had to become a place that different target audiences would visit, and we had to offer appropriate viewpoints and actions to all of them.

We built up our program as a dense net of activities that are interconnected, and at the centre of the net lies the exhibition activity based on our collections. We divided the museum into different zones: a) from the beginning of the 18th century through classic modernity until the end of World War II, b) the period of Soviet occupation, and c) contemporary art. A somewhat unprecedented decision was made: we agreed that our contemporary art would start with the year 1991, when Estonia gained independence, because in comparison with the previous period, the approaches and judgements were very different.

There is a strong connection between the exhibition activity and the educational activity of the so-called open zone. In the context of Kumu, this means an education centre that deals with school children and adults. In addition to that, there are several programs and lectures for different types of visitors (for example, "Kumu afternoons" are popular). Our guide-training department also affects the public sphere; being a guide at Kumu requires basic training and constant learning, and our contractual guides have turned out to be a strong support group for us.

The Kumu auditorium also plays an important role. In fact, the auditorium was designed to attract groups of visitors who usually don't come to a museum, including the representatives of different fields of culture. The starting principle was that Kumu would close its exhibition halls at 6 pm, but then start the auditorium programme. Of course the programme had to be carefully prepared and connected to the activities of Kumu as an art museum.

In conclusion, I would say that Kumu has succeeded in its initial goals. Kumu has started off well and, since its opening, nobody in Estonia can say that an art museum is a boring and quiet place. It has been tough work, with thousands of details. The most important thing has been to focus on Kumu as a functioning whole that expands from the centre (professional and intellectual activity) outwards: educational activity, publishing activity, communication, marketing etc. We have had to keep that expansion symmetrical and at the same time keep in mind that all the structures are dependent on each other. If one disappears, the others will, too. If there is no exhibition activity, nobody will know anything about our collections; if there is no educational activity, communication and marketing, nobody will know anything about our exhibitions; if there is no publishing activity, the information won't be preserved and spread and the intellectual motivation of the curators will fade. If there is no motivation, there will be no exhibitions...


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