Estonian National Museum

Art Leete

Professor of Ethnology, University of Tartu

Estonian National Museum

Estonian National Museum Jänese Str 24 51009 Tartu Estonia

Tartu, Estonia
Estonian Museum Awards 2016 / Best Permanent Exhibition


Ethnographic Devotion to Our Indigenous Friends




The Estonian National Museum (ENM) was founded in 1909 to protect and develop the history and culture of Estonia. Quite soon afterwards, in 1913, the ENM started collecting ethnographic items from other Finno-Ugric peoples. In the same year, a suggestion was made to establish a department to revitalise handicrafts and collect foreign (including Finno-Ugric) objects. Today, the main emphasis of research and collecting is on Estonian everyday life in the second half of the 20th century as well as Finno-Ugric audiovisual and material data.


Our team started to work on the Finno-Ugric permanent exhibition, later given the name Echo of the Urals, in 2006. The exhibition team aimed to avoid presenting an exotic image of the Finno-Ugric peoples, but intended to demonstrate that their heritage enables Finno-Ugric people to negotiate cross-cultural human values. We decided to focus the ENM's Finno-Ugric exhibition on the seemingly mundane objects and actions of the Finno-Ugric peoples through the prism of gender roles. Concentrating on gender roles enables us to keep the idea of the permanent exhibition simple, but also socially relevant.

The idea of arranging the exhibition around the concept of reflecting special qualities of the indigenous Finno-Ugric heritage through everyday phenomena and gendered focus was proposed by the Professor of Ethnology at the University of Tartu, Estonia. The exhibition team, designers and architects discussed the idea intensively and adjusted the initial, rather laconic script. In the process of the preparation of the display, the idea was also discussed with the general public at museum hearings and through the media.

Our main professional concerns were related to potential conflict between attractive and ethical styles of representation. We attempted to maintain high standards of ethnographic appeal without violating any ethical rules. We labelled this philosophical outlook the strategy of ethical attraction. In addition to this, we aimed to support small Finno-Ugric groups by providing them with a few conceptual tools of identity construction. We intended to challenge and reorganise ethnographers' and visitors' knowledge through various experiences. Our exhibition was supposed to provide the audience a choice of how to rearrange its knowledge and feelings in a cross-cultural display. Although the idea that the museum collection can represent culture adequately is an illusion, we still aimed to reflect some sort of authenticity.

Focus on gender roles relates the display to social practices related to equality in Estonia and Europe. We attempted to contribute to the social discourse about gender issues by demonstrating that different peoples have generated various balanced models for treating problems in female-male relations. In this way, we aimed to negotiate traditional ethnography and modern gender discourse.


Public interest was generated by a thoughtfully balanced combination of ethnography, architecture and the display design. Our exhibition involves a number of innovative technical solutions. For example, we designed the world's biggest museum soundscape at our exhibition, giving multiple ways in which to experience culture through senses other than sight. At the same time, technology can treat the messages of indigenous culture very sensitively and thus one can experience Finno-Ugric heritage, life and world perception rather efficiently.

Echo of the Urals is the largest Finno-Ugric exhibition in the world. It is designed to communicate impressions and knowledge of the Finno-Ugric indigenous groups that live mainly in Russia. The display shows simultaneously ethnographic, artistic and human experiences in a holistic way by engaging different levels of knowledge and a variety of sensory experiences.

Our concept team included four ethnologists, as well as one folklorist and one linguist. In total, including designers, architects, sound engineers, filmmakers, photographers, computer programmers, consultants and other helpers, a hundred people were involved in the process of preparing the exhibition. A number of them were representatives of the Finno-Ugric peoples (including two members of the concept team).

We had three main challenges throughout the preparation of the exhibition. Firstly, the general strategy of the permanent exhibition presumed that the display must offer something to everybody: to all age groups, to visitors with extremely different cultural backgrounds and levels of expertise. Thus the overall idea of the exhibition was supposed to be very simple while at the same time involving a maximum of heuristic potential. Secondly, as already mentioned, balanced collaboration between the ethnographic team and the designers was our utmost concern. However, after negotiation of roles and competencies our cooperation was seamless. And thirdly, we were under the critical gaze of the general public during the years in which the exhibition was made. People were very interested in how millions of euros were spent (the new ENM building cost 84 million; our exhibition budget constituted only a fraction of that, but still a lot of pressure was put on us to prove that the public investment was justified). This meant that we were supposed to communicate our ideas and report the progress of preparations to the public continually. It proved impossible to impress everybody before the display was opened to visitors.

The biggest obstacle during the process of exhibition making that could potentially ruin the whole project came within the field of organisational issues. The division of work between different core teams (ethnographers and designers) was initially defined in too loose a way. As a consequence rather serious confusion evolved and nobody was sure enough who was responsible for taking important decisions. This experience told us that clearly defined roles and smooth management are vitally important in the course of preparation of such a large entertainment project.

During the course of the work on the Echo of the Urals exhibition, the team acquired new skills and extensive experience in generating ideas, in creative writing, and in adapting scholarly viewpoint with artistic performance in the process of exhibition management. During this kind of long-term and highly complex project, one must try to keep the core ideas and action strategies as simple as possible. This enables the curators to connect the variety of details one must handle during the course of the actions needed to achieve an illuminating result.


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