Estonian Maritime Museum: Seaplane Harbour

Ott Sarapuu

Estonian Maritime Museum: Seaplane Harbour

Vesilennuki 6, Tallinn

Tallinn, Estonia
Estonian Museum of the Year 2012

"A Sea-full of excitement"

Estonians are a maritime people. The sea, islands, rivers and lakes have provided us with food and protection since ancient times; they have served for travel and trade; our waters have shaped our nation's culture and destiny. Yet Estonia did not have a suitable maritime museum that could satisfy modern demands. The Estonian Maritime Museum (founded in 1935) permanent exhibition occupied only 700m2 in an old cannon tower Fat Margaret.  The Museum searched for a long time for a suitable location close to the sea, until it found (2004) the hangars at the Tallinn Seaplane Harbour.

The history of the Seaplane Harbour hangars goes back to the building of Peter the Great's Naval Fortress, plans for which were drafted in 1907. Tallinn was chosen to be the central base for a defence network (to protect the St. Petersburg) in the Gulf of Finland. Taking into account the rapid development of military aviation, a plan was drawn up to build a seaplane harbour. Construction work on the hangars was carried out from 1916 to 1917, using plans prepared by Christiani Nielsen, a world-famous Danish engineering company of the time. The hangars are unique due to their construction history, and have a high heritage value. The hangars were the first structures in the world to use reinforced concrete shell domes. This construction solution allowed the construction of an immense internal space, where an area measuring 35x116 m does not contain a single pillar. The concrete is only 8 cm thick at the crest, and 12 cm near the support pillars; there are no beams to support the shells.

Before restoration work began in 2010, the seaplane hangars were in a terrible state. The reinforced concrete domes, originally 8 cm thick, had lost 2-3 cm of concrete on the inside, revealing the reinforcing steel, which was heavily corroded. The best specialists available were engaged for the restoration project and for the creation of the maritime museum. A plan was put together by KOKO Architects, an acclaimed and award-winning Estonian architecture firm whose portfolio includes a series of renovation and restoration projects. The design contained hundreds of experimental solutions that had not been previously implemented in this way. Due to the project, this unique engineering landmark was saved from collapse.

The Seaplane Harbour's permanent exhibition, entitled "A Sea-full of excitement," always has the family in mind. Our dream was to create a museum that is exciting, interesting, and where families with children would want to return to. We also aim for the following:
  1. A range of experiences and an environment that encourages learning;
  2. Personal narratives and museum staff are also active storytellers;
  3. Provision of information in different ways to accommodate different visitors
  4. Interactive exhibits - a large number of exhibits are presented so that they can be viewed close up (e.g., the submarine is fully open to visitors) or visitors can take part (i.e. simulators).
As the British submarine Lembit (built for the Estonian Navy in 1937) is raised above the floor for better visibility, it marks an imaginary waterline in the hangars, dividing the exhibition into three parts: 1) the underwater world below Lembit's waterline; 2) the water's surface; 3) the world above the water level. All exhibits are placed in their natural environment - for example the 16th century Maasilinna shipwreck and sea-mines are underwater; traditional crafts, boats and yachts are on the water's surface; and seaplane is in the air above the water. Visitors enter the museum on the second level and start to walk on impressive steel bridge that goes around the submarine.

The end of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries saw major technological development. Man learnt how to fly engine-driven machines, how to dive to depths of tens of metres, how to wage war with previously unknown atomic energy, and so on. The Seaplane Harbour's exhibition tells the story of maritime technological developments, those that took place in Estonia and those that are connected with Estonia.

Both traditional panels and touchscreen displays are used to present the exhibits. Visitors can read information, see pictures, and watch archival footage. A number of specially created animations and videos are also available. One feature of the displays is the "Read and collect" system, whereby visitors can send those displays which interest them to their email. This extends the experience beyond the museum grounds. The exhibition is presented in three languages: Estonian, English, and Russian.

The exhibition has about 225 items, most of which are large exhibits (boats, mines, weaponry etc). The centrepiece is the submarine Lembit, which floated 75 years in the water - the longest period for the submarine in the world - and has survived largely in its original condition. Visitors may board the vessel and experience life on a 1930s submarine. As the aim of the exhibition is also to provide opportunities for self-discovery, several simulators are available. These were developed in Estonia, and are connected to our maritime history. Visitors can fly the famous Sopwith Camel; take a round-the-world trip on the yellow submarine; pilot ships through Tallinn Bay; and try on Estonian military uniforms.

A large number of innovative and unique solutions were developed for the Seaplane Harbour, such as the mystical underwater lighting ripple effects, in which water is used. The museum floor is a large maritime chart, based on historical maps. Special sound effects are used to enhance the museum experience. Among others, the film Underwater Flights, made by Estonia's best directors, can be seen at the museum as well as the one of Estonia's largest specially ordered paintings, spread out on 14 separate canvases. The paintings give a new and unusual view on the development of military technology.

In addition to the permanent exhibition, the surrounding environment is equally important to the museum. In the museum harbour, several traditional sailing ships and modern yachts have found a home, and the open-air exhibition hosts a number of military and border patrol vessels, anchors, and cannons.

Since the beginning of the Seaplane Harbour project, the local community and volunteers have been involved. The museum has compiled educational programmes based on national curriculum for all school levels and these are very popular. Family weekends, children camps during holidays and children birthday celebrations are organized.

In under a year, the Seaplane Harbour has become one of the most important places for cultural events in Tallinn. Concerts, films, lectures, cooking workshops, plays - this is a short selection of the activities that have taken place at the museum and will continue in the future. Our largest every year events are the Tallinn Maritime Days, which sees more than 80 000 visitors over a three-day period, Ancient Lights Night and museum night.

The museum has, since opening, received 390 000 visitors - a record amongst Estonian museums. It is the second-most popular place to visit in Tallinn, after the Old Town.

But besides great numbers we are proud that the building - a significant engineering work of its time - has been saved and restored and large a large part of Estonia's maritime cultural and technological heritage has been restored and well presented. A wasteland where people did not go has been opened to the public, and an important step has been taken in reopening Tallinn to the sea, in the regeneration of a hitherto run-down neighbourhood and reintroducing its people to their cultural heritage.

"The Seaplane Harbour enriches Estonia" Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of the Republic of Estonia       
"More exciting than excitement itself" Eesti Pauml;evaleht (Major daily newspaper)

Seaplane Harbour has been awarded with Europa Nostra Grand Prix, best new museum in Estonia, best tourism promoter 2012, best family-friendly attraction and several other awards. Mr Urmas Dresen, the director of the Maritime Museum was chosen "The person of the year 2012" by the leading daily newspaper Postimees.


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