researcher, writer and curator of architecture and visual art

Bringing dialogue to local history museums: contemporary artists take on Estonian national narratives

Marge Monko. Laugh into tears, Võru museum. Photo: facebook.com/kunstnikudkogudes

Memory, the past and its preservation are undoubtedly one of the obsessions of Estonian culture. Characteristically for cultures and communities where a trauma narrative plays an important part in identity, remembering and constructing the memory through stories and material artefacts forms a key foundation to cling to in creating one’s image of self. As a second powerful thread in the identity narrative is awareness of how insecure and endangered one’s existence is, it is self-evident that an attempt is made to balance it with preservationist efforts.And what is better suited to this than a           museum – the notion of carrying everything worth saving, grain by grain, to a refuge from the changing world that jeopardizes it. Estonia has more museums per capita than any other European country – 242 including branches of large museums. That number is truly awe-inspiring and the overwhelming majority of them are museums dedicated to telling the story of a specific        locality, followed by museums devoted to a specific person or topic. As to whether and how much the myriad small museums sense their role – not only in preserving memory but also continuing to construct and reconstruct identity narratives, not only maintain the community but also ask questions about how it operates – varies and comes down to the fact material and intellectual resources are finite.

As one of the main dilemmas facing museums is the question of how to be part of the living cultural heritage and not just a silent treasure storehouse,[1] the European Union funding allocated in the last 10–15 years has most often been a ticket for the longed-for metamorphosis from a boring, dusty, silent museum into a living and enticing experience space. Besides and instead of remembering, experience has taken bold strides to the forefront. The museum transformations funded by Enterprise Estonia have placed the emphasis on being visually striking, more appetizing for the viewer, stage spectacles that tell stories – in short, dramatizing the museum environment. There has been less interest or ability to use external funding for including the community in the stories narrated by the museum, for seeing people not only as consumers of the experience-space but also as co-creators of the museum experience. This is precisely the aspect that has drawn much (self)-  criticism in international discourse on ethnographic and local history museums.The position from which the museum addresses its users, who makes the choices about what is displayed, the openness of the narratives narrated at the museum – these are all relevant questions. In Estonia, these topics have been touched on somewhat in connection with the development of the Estonian National Museum, which was charged with the task of telling not only the “grand story of Estonia” but that of all Finno-Ugric peoples. As to the grounds on which small local museums do the work of creating identity,    neither researchers not the museums themselves have studied this yet.

Artists in Collections, a project held in summer and autumn 2018 as part of the Estonian national centenary, tried to create dialogue between contemporary artists and small local museums, drawing attention to precisely the rich but largely dormant potential of Estonia’s local history and person-museums cum repositories. Seen in the international context, this is part of convergence between art and anthropology disciplines that has taken place for more than two decades – on one hand, the ethnographic turn in contemporary art, on the other hand, a reconsideration of the intensive self-criticism and representation policies in the anthropology and ethnography disciplines, and also the desire to trust a more open approach to material artefacts, also bringing in a sensory experience, which has ultimately led anthropology to a “sensory shift”.[2] Collaboration projects with artists have often been plumbed by the anthropology discipline to support its attempts to surmount its fixation on academic text and decoding the meaning of objects and artefacts, instead seeking to include the sensory experience and better understand the processes and perceptions in which the ideas and views are moulded.In the case of museums, inviting an artist to be guest curator, and giving them carte blanche to reconceptualize the collections and exhibits by repositioning or adding to them, has become almost the norm, a mainstream practice. Besides the most chrestomathic examples like Andy Warhol’s Raiding the Icebox I at the invitation of the Rhode Island School of Design in 1969, or Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore in 1992–1993, there were already a number of projects from the 1970s–1980s like the London National Gallery series The Artist’s Eye or MoMA’s analogous The Artist’s Choice. In the 1990s, this tactic took on quite a definite place in the mainstream of curating, where the numerous artists’   curator projects have highlighted a diversity of hitherto undisplayed archive material and critiqued institutional choices and representation decisions.

In Estonia, the idea of art project as a challenge to the official narrative set out by a museum leads back to the activities of Rühm T, which produced its first exhibition in 1986 in the courtyard of Adamson-Eric Museum and the second one a year later at Tammsaare Museum. Although that time, the display of paintings and spatial constructions (in defiance of all exhibition conventions) in Adamson-Eric Museum’s snowy courtyard was more of a by-product of the dearth of exhibition options, and Tammssaare Museum also hosted other art exhibitions in the 1980s, the aggressive attitude of Rühm T did not lack for an institution-critical aspect, either. The use of rough-seeming industrial materials, coupled with manifestos that extolled the contemporary technicist world and rejected nationalistic pathos, made these installations inevitably a critique of the central cultural narrative of national heroes.  The pedestrian robustness, sense for a modernity free of its moorings and nonchalance on a grand scale contrasted to earnest exhibits emphasizing immutable and timeless values. Close to ten years later, in Objects, a work done for the Saaremaa Biennial entitled Fabrique d’Histoire (1995), Mart Viljus commented, specifically on the construction of history and identity narratives in museums, installing among Saaremaa Museum’s permanent exhibition “‘Kinder-Surprise’ chocolate eggs in the recreated cuckoo bird nests in the glass display cases, fuzzy banda bears beside stuffed wolves, and plastic baby spoons beside ancient wooden spoons found in the local town hill”.[3] As the title of the biennial indicates, constructing history and competing narratives were one of the most acute topics during the transition era, and Viljus’s work for the biennial was among the ones that drew attention to this most directly.

Since the ambitious use of Kuressaare Castle’s museum environment for the Saaremaa Biennial, Estonia has not had many other art projects that interface with history and local history museums. To some extent, place-specific theatre has taken an interest in their potential. Mati Unt’s legendary Witching Hour on Jannseni Street, which ran for over 10 years, made use of the Koidula Museum environment, and a major project at Tallinn City Theatre – staging different parts of Truth and Justice – borrowed authenticity from Tammsaare Museum at Vargamäe.In the past decade, art museums above all have looked to artists for a fresh curator’s vision. In 2013–2014, Rael Artel’s series, also called Artists in Collections[4] (still called Artist in Household at the time of the first event[5]), attempted to reconceptualize exhibition practices at the Tartu Art Museum. Flo Kasearu (White Tank Top) and Rauno Thomas Moss (Magic of Nature. Mystical Moments in Estonian Art) were called upon to create an exhibition on the basis of the collection; a seminar organized by Tanel Rander, “Landscape and Coloniality”, commented on an exhibition that was running concurrently, titled Between Forest and the Sea. Estonian Nature Painting, and Toomas Kalve used a plate camera to capture the interior of the museum building on Vallikraavi tänav. Kumu Art Museum’s 2016 Between the Archive and the Architecture also sought commentary from artists on museum space as an institution in general, but remained quite abstract and restrained in its institutional criticism. From the side of material culture, a project at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design, Room (2018), fit in with this theme – the first to intervene and curate was the group Urmas-Ott; this year, Krista Leesi is expected to offer her vision of the collections.

In this context, it’s appropriate to ask what the Artists in Collections project will add to a model that is already quite widespread? From what positions do artists address museums and the public, and what is the impact and contribution of this endeavour on the self-image of museums devoted to specific places and people and, perhaps, their future activity? First of all, it’s important to note that the artists themselves chose the museums to work with.  Thus, the project as a whole shouldn’t be expected to emanate any strong ideology or curatorial position on the matter of what type of institutional  criticism the museums would gain most from at the current moment. The project leaders Maarin Ektermann and Mary-Ann Talvistu emphasized that they don’t see themselves as curators in the classical sense in this project – they don’t want to manifest substantive messages through art projects but rather be seen as intermediating and empowering, bringing parties together.  Thus, the accent points in terms of content should come purely from what is on artists’ (and the museums’) mind. Undoubtedly this is risky as a curatorial position given that the project as a whole might become too scattered – the aim of amplifying artists’ own voices to the maximum extent does not release them from responsibility for the whole. But this time things turned out well and we see that the choices made really have something important to say – they enter into a dialogue with each other and some broader questions asked about “Estonianness” in recent times.

Of the ten museums selected by the artists, half are devoted to a place or   local history/ethnology, and they are all on Estonia’s peripheries, which have a strong, specific regional identity – on one hand, Saaremaa Island, the Seto region and Võru County, which are all strong brands in the Estonian national narrative, and on the other hand, still-“exotic” and undiscovered Sillamäe and Narva-Jõesuu. In three cases, museums devoted to a specific person were chosen, all of them seminal figures of Estonian literature: the Anton Hansen Tammsaare, Lydia Koidula and Juhan Liiv museums. The two other museums – the Cement Museum in Kunda and the Broadcasting Museum in Türi – don’t fit into this pattern, and proceed from the artists’ own practice. The exhibitions of all of the museums selected were also untouched by the explosion of European support – some were nostalgically “dustier”, some more modern-looking, but, when it comes to the dichotomy of artefact vs. narrative – certainly traditionally oriented to the authenticity of the objects.

In their interventions, the artists often trust the power of authentic material, stressing the objects’ agentive power as one equal stakeholder in social relations, this being a common technique seen in the ethnographic turn in contemporary art, which should likewise help lower general audiences’ “reception threshold” for art in public spaces. Both Jaanus Samma’s Kodavere Church outhouse at Liiv Museum and the water well restored by Mihkel Ilus at Tammsaare Museum at Vargamäe are “real things”, making alternative threads of the story accessible to and easily understandable by museum    audiences. Both bring the everyday level of closeness to the body of life       experience into the focus. Samma’s wooden outhouse with graffiti from nearly a century ago is a good match with Heiki Pärdi’s recently published study Everyday Estonian Life (Eesti argielu), which created a buzz about how rudimentary early 20thcentury views of hygiene were. The outhouse as a palpable,  material work of art brings the sensibility of the text home even better – that events of 100 years ago are not some entertaining abstract pre-  history that one can be aloof from, but it is a much closer part of our shared experience than we think. Ilus’s goal of restoring a well from Tammsaare’s lifetime serves a similar purpose, bringing the quotidian into an environment in constant danger of being sacralized (“Tammsaare Museum is a national shrine”, as the museum’s website states), bringing it down to earth. Is the physical action of drawing water from a well still in one’s physical memory – even if a person had never performed that motion; is there such a thing as a cultural body memory? If so, who is the community that shares that memory?

For Samma and Ilus, biographical museums were the impetus for exploring more general core narratives, but if we’re talking about fictitiousness of the national myths around certain persons, this is brought out most vividly by Flo Kasearu in Koidula Museum in Pärnu, where she (the founder of a house- museum devoted to herself) was the most appropriate pick to dissect related topics. Performing excavations in the museum’s yard, she points to the inadequacy of the cult of “hard” evidence and to the constructed nature of history. In enlarging a few items that have definitively been proved to have belonged to Koidula to larger than life size, she questions the relic status of the “Artefact”, and as a trickster might, strips them of their aura of sacredness and showing that they are contingent. The decision to add name “Jannsen”, Koidula’s father, to the museum temporarily makes the “presence of absence” visible – we can be proud of our first woman poet, but it was largely the activities and position of her father that laid a foundation for her self-actualization; characteristically of the era, the choices in life and possibilities enjoyed even by such a powerful woman depended on men. Kasearu’s intervention is in dialogue with Malle Salupere’s recent Koidula monograph[6], which is likewise a reconsideration of the myth of Koidula – which has         become an ossified, part of our canon – in the context of the conditions of that era.

The representativeness of the narrative presented in museums and the incompleteness of “official history” are also the target for Marge Monko’s critique. She added to Võru Museum’s exhibition a little corner featuring sports and entertainment culture in the interwar Estonian Republic. One way or another, both fields were already included in the museum’s permanent exhibition, but the difference in how they are presented is striking – the museum’s exhibits on county song festivals and temperance societies talk of local history through the national culture prism, while Monko’s display cases, based on equally authentic newspaper clippings, ads and other information, open up a completely different look at the same era, showing, in a manner both self- evident and unaccustomed, the connection between this corner of southern Estonia and developments elsewhere in Europe. Monko chose mimicry as her presentation style – the exhibition’s graphic design imitates the rest of the exhibition and melds in so painlessly that without the poster explaining the Artists in Collections project, the viewer would not know that this was a separate intervention.As the visitors’ trust in the “authenticity” of the narratives presented by museums is generally very great and they are not by      default prone to doubt what is asserted in the exhibition,[7] this kind of   mimicry is, in the given context, the most effective tactic for undermining it.

In terms of form, the opposite pole to Monko’s mimicry might be Yevgeni Zolotko’s work at Sillamäe Museum, where the new exhibit stood out downright architecturally from the existing parts, taking the shape of a parasitic addition to the building. This “incorrect” and “other” addition to the museum building contained Zolotko’s exhibition of a community that was just as out of place and foreign – the settlement of Viivikonna, which has in the recent decades become largely a ghost town. The community of former miners has been called Estonia’s most alien environment by anthropologist Eeva Kesküla, being doubly stigmatized for ethnic reasons and the post-industrial situation.[8] The stories of residents and found objects collected by Zolotko from Viivikonna and presented as a composition reminiscent of religious icons, are as a whole more melancholy than barbed.For viewers, it was initially frustrating that only halfway through its run, the artist’s “parasitic” installation had already been torn down because it was not up to fire codes, and some of the texts had become illegible because of moisture; but then it started to seem that these failures were truly fitting for this project – the course of impermanence became an organic part of the work. Just as redolent of the passing and poetic was Jass Kaselaan’s exhibition at Saaremaa Museum, where an unknown head sculpture found in the collections became an even greater enigma after the artist had produced tens and tens of replicas of it – the takeaway being that the past held in museum collections is still a “foreign land” and its meanings can never be fully grasped. Kaselaan placed a number of similarly unidentified figures from the museum’s photo collection in dialogue with the mystery head. The blurry images of these people seemed haunting, like Gerhard Richter’s out-of-focus portraits.A set of people with identities that fan out, flow out – they could be anyone; in any case they’re not “us”: Kaselaan’s rows of faces did quite a lot to shake up the identity narrative that Saaremaa has always told, a narrative centring strongly on solidarity, and being a community distinct from the mainlanders, a place where everybody knows everyone.

To sum up, we might say Artists in Collections was more about reinforcing the existing aspects and sounding a call for dialogue. It was less a project that criticized shortcomings and drew dividing lines. It directed a stream of fresh air at stereotypes, trained a spotlight at narratives that have gone unquestioned too long, and added some more quotidian and less visible elements to the ranks of the sacred and canonical, and drew connections with recent polemical treatments that reconsidered the national self-concept. The “aesthetic resistance” of the art projects helped to add ambivalence and openness to museum discourse, the biggest threats to which are becoming closed-off and seeking final truths. Many projects pointed to the dynamic   nature of material culture, where meanings are not fixed in an object but rather are process-oriented and in a constant state of actualization through the social context of the present day. Most interventions commented on the narratives presented by museums and presentation styles. There was less of an attempt to relate to the backstory of the collections or museum acquisition policies, which is also a salient issue in international topics relating to the decolonization of museums – do our local history museum collections have a specific Soviet-era flavour? One of the central problems concerning ethnographic art – i.e., who has the right to speak for another and does an artist intervening in a community inadvertently also exoticise the community – did not arise very acutely here. One reason was that there was little radical iconoclasm in these approaches; furthermore, all of the artists had reason to appeal to a shared heritage. The Vietnamese film-maker and philosopher Trinh Minh-ha has proposed the idea of speaking nearby[9] for overcoming the problem of authenticity and cultural appropriation in art, the opposition between insider and outsider. Speaking nearby should enable empathetic polyphony and “partial belonging” – this balanced and dialogue-driven position also appeared to generally characterize the works in Artists in Collections.

One of the main strengths of the project as a whole was certainly also its scale – ten museums over one summer is an impressive total in Estonia’s context. Continuation in the form of a sequel or spinoff should ensure a lasting effect. Ideally, this could take place at the museum’s own initiative.The goals that Artists in Collections ambitiously undertook can be attained over a longer period of time and the curator’s contribution can help it get only half of the way there – at some point, the initiative and interest have to also come from the museums and the community.It will be quite interesting to see whether, say, Sillamäe Museum, which with its dolls, musical instruments and semi-precious stones is currently like a cabinet of curiosities, will start dealing with the region’s more problematic history and contemporary processes of change. Will Narva-Jõesuu’s nostalgic local history museum include the resort’s current life in its narrative? Will the new exhibition of Koidula  Museum, currently being renovated, take a fresher, more open look at the poetess’s personal myth? Võru Museum ended up keeping Marge Monko’s display as a permanent part of its exhibition, but there are other topics that could be added as well, to help see the local history in a more multifaceted way. That’s to say nothing about the 232 museums the project didn’t get to this time – what a spacious landscape, rich in possibilities! 


[1]Piret Õunapuu, “Muuseumikogud – kas vaikiv varakamber või elav kul-    tuuripärand?”. Mäetagused,no.39, 2008.

[2]Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: Sage Publications, 2009.

[3]Invasion. Saaremaa biennaal 1997. Tallinn: Center for Contemporary Photography, 1997, p. 78.

[4]https://tartmus.ee/en/exhibition/white-tank-top/.

[5]Seminar “Landscape and coloniality”, http://www.sirp.ee/s3-pressiteated/c2-pressiteated/seminar-maastik-ja-koloniaalsus/.

[6]Malle Salupere. Koidula. Ajastu taustal, kaasteeliste keskel. Tallinn: Tänapäev, 2017.

[7]National Museums Making Histories in Diverse Europe. EuNaMus Report No 7. Linköping, 2012, http://liu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?searchId=2&pid=diva2%3A573632&dswid=2257.

[8]Eeva Kesküla, Mining Postsocialism: Work, Class and Ethnicity in an Estonian Mine. PhD dissertation at Goldsmiths, University of London, 2012.

[9]Nancy N. Chen, “‘Speaking nearby’: A Conversation with Trinh Minh-ha”. Visual Anthropology Review, vol. 8, no. 1, spring 1992.




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