Estonian National Museum

Alar Karis

Director, Estonian National Museum

Estonian National Museum

Estonian National Museum Jänese Str 24 51009 Tartu Estonia

Tartu, Estonia

European Museum Forum / Kenneth Hudson Award 2018


Inclusive and Innovative Museum Centre



The Estonian National Museum (ENM) is a state owned, non-profit, cultural, education and scientific institution. It is an open and inclusive environment for learning and creativity that develops according to the expectations of society. In October 2016 the ENM relocated to a new 35 000 m2 building in the grounds of Raadi Manor just 2 kilometres from the centre of Tartu.

The Raadi site is a multi-layered area that was a former Baltic German manor complex; it then housed the museum in the 1920s and 1930s, becoming an important national symbol. After WWII the territory of the museum became a Soviet military airbase and the whole area was cut off from the urban space of the city. From the 1990s, after Soviet military forces left Estonia, the area was abandoned and became a deserted socio-psychological wilderness.

The reconstruction of the museum has given rise to significant urban development and environmental improvement as well as real change in public attitudes to the area. The new building (designed by DGT Architects) was inspired by the surrounding landscape and its former uses, and brings together different meanings and perceptions.

ENM Echo of the Urals_Berta Vosman

The ENMrs"s renewal process involved not only the creation of the physical environment, but also the development of a new complex cultural institution. The museum was opened with new collection depositories, office space and public activity areas, including an education centre, a folk culture centre and exhibitions. The permanent exhibition, Encounters, deals with Estonian everyday life from the first settlers to the present day, while Echo of the Urals looks at the traditional life of Finno-Ugric peoples. In addition to exhibitions, the museum welcomes visitors to a rich cultural programme, as the museum hosts and organises around 600 events per year for different audiences.

The construction of the new museum building and production of new permanent exhibitions triggered a rethinking of the museum's identity and goals. National museums have an important role in exploring people's belonging. Today people attribute great significance to their place of origin and thus one of the goals of the museum has been to support a feeling of belonging within a globalised world, while also rephrasing traditional national narratives for contemporary needs.

Although the new museum building was opened quite recently, the ENM is an old museum, founded in 1909. The first items for the museum were originally collected in the latter part of the 19th century. Collecting has been carried out with the help of thousands of volunteers, many of whom continue to be involved in museum activities. The collections and research projects help to prioritise and acknowledge the personal stories and experiences of museum audiences. The renewed ENM adopted an open approach to Estonian culture. The goal of the museum is to show the everyday life of various cultural and social groups in Estonia throughout the history of Estonian settlement.


ENM Encounters_Berta Vosman

Currently, the most important questions regarding the sustainability of culture are related to changes in cultural consumption. Museums continue to be popular in Estonia. According to statistics, there were 3.5 million museum visits in 2017 (in a country with 1.3 million inhabitants). At the same time, almost half of the population in Estonia does not regard the more institutional type of museum attractive. There are specific challenges relating to the younger generation, whose cultural consumption habits are strongly directed towards the digital. In the renewal process, the ENM followed the current approaches to the role of the museum in society by presenting itself as an institution for which the life experiences of people are important. Permanent exhibitions and education programs offer people from different sociocultural backgrounds links and touchstones to their identity.

The scenography for the Encounters and Echo of the Urals permanent exhibitions appeals to different visitors and enriches people's expectations of the museum. Encounters is based primarily on an analytical approach that reflects a diversity of perspectives. The Echo of the Urals adds an emotional layer and offers visitors sensory experiences. A separate exhibition space at the Encounters permanent exhibition is reserved for participatory exhibition initiatives (the DIY Exhibition Hall), enabling ENM to produce three exhibition projects a year. The exhibitions are selected from ideas submitted by the general public and are decided on according to a public vote. One out of three exhibitions annually in this space is curated by young people to foreground their perspective on various topics.

At the Encounters permanent exhibition the most important innovation guiding choices of both content development and design solutions is the dialogical method, applied using two techniques: a) during the curation process, subjective views based on different source materials were continuously juxtaposed; b) participation was introduced into the exhibition space. Original artefacts, installations, documentary and fiction films produced for the exhibition, archival AV materials and a digital layer, including large databases accessible through touch screens, visualisations of research results and hypothesis were used. The production of the permanent exhibition facilitated an institutional turn from monovocality to multivocality, which is to say that in addition to the curators, museum audiences also have a say on different areas of museum work (collecting, interpreting, exhibition production). Participatory principles were also used in the production process of the second permanent exhibition, Echo of the Urals, where representatives of various Finno-Ugric groups were involved in the exhibition production as co-curators, experts and contributors.

For the Estonian academic community the new permanent exhibitions represent contemporary creative research communication. The research community was involved in the exhibition production in order to integrate more recent research results, meaning also that because of the character of the exhibitions a wide spectrum of research disciplines could contribute, often through cross-disciplinary collaboration.


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