Estonia 2017 – Rosemary Cunningham

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Estonia 2017 – Rosemary Cunningham

 My expectations of Estonia and the things I would learn whilst there were unexpectedly life changing. The enthusiasm and love exuded by our constant guide, Maarika and her clear sense of pride in her home country served to accentuate my feelings about our experiences.

 Maarika allowed us – as foreign visitors – a unique insight into life as an Estonian person in the twenty-first century, but facilitated our understanding of Estonia’s chequered and often confusing past. Her use of words like ‘emotions’, ‘nature’ and ‘beauty’ kept reappearing and a clear sense of general Estonian priorities became clear; of simplicity, returning to nature, folklore, science, using what resources they have in the best way, learning from past mistakes and celebrating the firebrands and game changers of their history.


 Several themes emerged from my experience of the Estonian interpretation of culture and each inspired certain patterns or ideas to emerge. I’ve used my notes and sketches made during the trip to create simple illustrations for each section – they’re directly influenced by the time spent in Estonia and wouldn’t exist otherwise.


Creating space & atmosphere


Illustration: Ancient burial barrows at Joelahtme

At the Joelahtme stone burial barrows near Tallinn, roadwork uncovered the stone structures relatively recently and they were actually moved from their original position, but arranged in the same formation so they could be preserved and enjoyed rather than covered over or destroyed by the road.

 I was immensely impressed by the colossal Estonian National Museum in Tartu. The 1km long building is making use of an old airfield strip, starting from nothing and growing into a tall wedge, allowing for triple height ceilings. The public part of the building is split into two main sections, the ground floor charts a chronological history of Estonia’s ordinary people from today, right back to its geological beginnings. The downstairs exhibition covers the Ural peoples and their traditions and language.

 In Echo of the Urals, the high ceilings allow for wide, full bleed prints on the walls and large-scale projections, some of them interactive. The light and soundscapes create an atmosphere of place rather than relying on small-scale models and photographs. They convey the space within a traditional hut by literally building that space so a visitor can understand the constraints of materials and living space. The different geographies and seasons are reflected in colour, light, sound, smell and even temperature changes in the separate areas of the exhibition, using all senses to invoke feelings of travel between disparate places.


In the Encounters exhibition, cases of different heights conveyed the disparity between rich and poor interiors, literally displaying the limits of space. Particularly alluring was a section concerning the environment. Each round themed area was cordoned off, floor to high ceiling with dark netting, obscuring the display inside. Visitors are forced to engage with the tricky subject matter by ducking into the darkness and emerging inside a transparent bubble that offers more clarity – perhaps reminding the viewer of the need to engage with environmental concerns.

 We saw another elegant use of cheap materials to create spaces and atmosphere in the Saagadi Manor House throughout a Mosquito exhibition. It was used as a backdrop to a very simple display, adding colour and interest relevant to the theme. Upstairs in the same venue, a display of forestry and nature was built almost entirely of undressed wood, giving the impression of being inside the forest itself. 


    Telling stories

 Illustration: Kalevipoeg statue in Glehni Park

 Along our journey through Estonia we had our constant guide and companion, Maarika who told us stories constantly about her life, Estonia’s past, tall tales of erratic boulders being put there by giants like Kalevipoeg and she pointed out all the flowers and plants we had never seen before. Storytelling is important in every culture, but Maarika shared so much of her own experience that my image of Estonia became fleshed out and real in only a week.

We met Jaan at the impressive Eesti Kaevandus-Muuseum and embarked on what was (for me) an emotional voyage into the depths of the now disused shale mine where he bizarrely still works. He moved from retired mine machinery worker to tour guide several years after the mine closed, sharing his experiences and those of his coworkers. His personal reflections and expertise made the tour that much more authentic and interesting. He was just one of the snapshots of a dying shared experience that we encountered.

In Tallin we were spoiled by Riin who gave us her conservator’s take on the city, detailing not only what we were looking at but how it has developed and been maintained over time. Events such as soviet occupation changed the whole city and there remains a dichotomy of preserving the medieval city without whitewashing the soviet architecture.

 As a final treat in our trip, Riin brought us to her home in Tallin’s suburbs where she resides in her own heritage landmark. Built for a pair of sculpture artists in the middle of the last century, she bought it after their death with the studio kept as they left it. It feels like a time capsule of two working lives, but with Riin’s family living alongside the artists. She was able to tell us all about their lives, what they worked on and how she ended up there, which was all fascinating.

She and Maarika took us to a nearby special place, Glehni Park and introduced us to the vast ruinous orangery and baronial castle built at the close of the 19th century. Regarded by the Estonians as their equivalent of the designer and architect, Gaudi, the tale of the design and construction of the castle as one man’s vision was magical. Coupled with Riin’s knowledge of the ongoing reconstruction of the area by the University of Tallin, the scale of work and imagination was truly impressive. 

Creating Experiences

Sauna hut at Körvemaa

Illustration: Sauna hut at Körvemaa

After our tour of the mine in which Jaan’s heavily lined face, sombre expressions and adeptness at working all the machinery assisted in communicating the day-to-day grind of the mines, we were able to soak up some more (damp) atmosphere eating our lunch underground. We had only the briefest of snapshots and I found the experience challenging and surprisingly emotive.

 Tartu was a long day in the national museum, but was tempered with a joyful cruise in a heritage boat on the river. Our wide, wooden vessel, Jömmu took us down the river and back up over the course of two hours. I expected a commentary and interpretation, whereas the boat was more about creating a joyful pleasure ride with authentic touches. We were provided with drinks, sat on the upper deck, leaning against the cabin sides on sheepskins being serenaded with an accordion player – and Maarika’s singing. It was the perfect evening for a heritage tourist, fun, interesting to see the boat in use and an unusual way to see the city.


Again, at Palmse Manor, we stepped out of the sun and into the Palmse Korts restaurant to find an authentic atmosphere, but all modern conveniences. The wooden structure had a high beamed ceiling, handmade ceramic crockery with black bread and butter stored under salted water. This was our first taste of traditional food and we relished it. The lumpy whitewashed interior, high windows and amazing garlicky bread made the meal one to remember.

Memorably, sauna was an integral experience in Estonia and we had Maarika to show us how it’s done. From her first morning’s suggestion that a swimsuit was a no go, to the end of the week when we were all actively enjoying nude saunas and having the various traditions explained and demonstrated, we came a long way!

Getting back to nature


Illustration: Fir trees along Estonian roads


There possibly is no technical English term to describe the ‘Nature Schools’ we visited as part of RMK (forestry commission) centres or manor houses. There were a surprising amount of well-appointed classrooms filled with taxidermy animals, pelts, branches, sensory resources, rocks and even animal droppings in jars. It appears to be integral to the Estonian education that each child should be familiar with the dangers of the forest, but also to be able to identify trees, fungi, plants and animals by the evidence at hand. With 50% of Estonia being covered in forest, it’s easy to understand how useful the knowledge could be, but I feel my nature education is severely lacking, and will therefore be ploughing effort into improving not only my own, but encouraging others through my practice. Most of the nature schools create their own learning materials easily and cheaply by looking to their own forests for everything they need. No huge reference textbooks form the basis of lessons – it is a return to the forest itself that provides its own resource.

The RMK had a clear goal aside from preserving and maintaining forests and land – to ensure they were offering outdoor activities to everyone. By making the forests easy to navigate and by offering a wealth of activities to suit all tastes, they are a gateway to outdoor pursuits. Unlike the UK, the parking all appears to be free and the toilets are basic, sympathetic, wooden composting affairs rather than wipe clean plastic cubicles that I feel is a sustainable step in the right direction. Camping is encouraged in specific areas, bothys and hostels (also in the Manor Houses) are cheaply rented and RMK put on special days to encourage folk to come out and play – and inevitably learn about nature. It does make me feel that in the UK generally there is a disconnect in nature education, perhaps too many screens, displays and impressive but unsustainable materials where there could be timber, handmade objects and more simplicity and a more ‘dirty’ hands on approach.

 One of the most surprising discoveries we made in Estonia was the craze for ‘disc golf’. Think 18 hole golf courses, but swap the clubs and balls for frisbees and the holes for chain festooned metal buckets. Easier to manage than golf courses, discgolf can be played in and around forested areas and the ground surface can be left natural. The world championship has been held at Körvemaa where we stayed one evening. There was a huge Enduro equestrian event happening during our stay involving about 60 horses and riders with their entourages, testament to the size and flexibility of the venue.


Along the ‘Onion Route’ we stayed near Kolkja in a traditional Peipsi lakeside cabin with rustic interiors and no running water. It had a traditional sauna and a composting outdoor toilet and bucket toilet inside. It was basic in aspect, but I think it was one of the most pleasant places we stayed because of the quiet, the large interior space and a glimpse into a simpler way of living, at one with our surroundings.

Simple use of technology

Illustration: Runic Rosie

Estonia, like many European countries, often relies on outside visitors to boost its tourism industry. This poses a problem in interpretation, some places like the Museum of Occupations offer three languages on every display, other places have audio guides. In the National Museum in Tartu, visitors can pick up a card at the ticket desk for translating any given glass case description. Intelligent ink displays (like a kindle) change their language with the use of this contactless card corresponding to the desired language. This technology is – on this scale – perhaps relatively cheap to replace and maintain, sustainable and elegant visually for visitors.

 Echo of the Urals had palm sized buttons on walls which when activated would cause displays to magically come alive with light and sound. These buttons – as all the graphic design in this section – consisted of runic symbols pulled together to create images. It formed a visual language for the narrative of the exhibition and the consistent use of these elements assisted in comprehension of the whole. Taking these ancient symbols and repurposing them as wayfinding arrows and graphic motifs really assisted and impressed me. Slightly more strange was the gender splitting of every element of life in the Urals. Of course women and men have and had different roles in the past, but I felt that distilling a people down into one object per gender was perhaps a little simplistic.


Palmse Manor boasted a small visitors centre with some lovely interpretation for the surrounding natural and industrial heritage. Many of the displays hinged on a simple electrical circuit completion or a wheel that could be turned to reveal or connect different elements of the display. I found this approach of zero screens and use of simple kinetics and quality illustration very effective in communicating information, even in another language.


In the Mosquito exhibition at Sagaadi Manor, a cheap, simple but effective pull-string theory was applied to a series of displays. The cut birch discs were printed with a question and when opened, revealed the answer and accompanying illustration or fact. Fun to interact with but without the electricity drain and tricky upkeep of screens.


Keeping Old Traditions alive

Illustration: Zoja and the Russian Old believers praying house near Kolkja 

Avinurme craft centre was a delight for the senses, the scent of cut birch and timber wax was instant and refreshing. Avinurme is the only place in Estonia that specialises in this particular type of traditional wooden product and there are so many to choose from. A true family business, we were introduced to the owner who was one of three generations of her family who had managed the company. Now they take on apprentices and offer extensive training to women in handicrafts and men in the larger woodworking items. We were able to watch baskets being woven by a new apprentice and she spoke to us about changing her lifestyle from Tallinn and moving out East to Avinurme. This seems to be a trend perhaps echoed in the UK of people rejecting stressful city life and ‘regular’ employment for a more rural and traditional approach – in this case keeping old traditions alive and prospering.


Along the Onion Route we visited a Russian Old believers house, Peipsimaa Külastuskeskus, now a museum dedicated to preserving and interpreting the lifestyle of the old believers. It appears that the workers at the museum still live on the premises and use the old well for water, the garden for growing vegetables and the upstairs of the house for running a fabric printing business dedicated to authenticity. Without their efforts, these practices would all but disappear, preserved only in national museums and on film.


One of the most valuable and unique experiences I had in Estonia was meeting Zoja when we reached the shoreline of Lake Peipsi. She has been an Old Believer all her life and now essentially manages and runs the praying house in her village. Over her lifetime the congregations have dwindled to just a few elderly women in the parish where once there were many families and hundreds of people. It’s evident that her religion as a practice will probably cease in the coming decades as the last of the Old Believers quietly age and pass away. She has taken on the roles of custodian and effectively priest. She is familiar with the services, prayers and customs and once she became comfortable with so many strangers, speaking her hybrid of Russian and Estonian, she expressed disappointment in falling engagement, yet also immensely strong faith. It was an honour to meet her and get even a glimpse at the icons, prayer books and to hear the sung prayers of Easter.


Similarly we stopped at the Kuraemae Convent and judiciously became as pious as possible. We were granted access into the nun’s domain and even caught some of the stunningly beautiful ceremony. It was wonderful to see such dedication, not only to Russian Orthodoxy, but to the upkeep of the grounds, the peace and tranquility of the spaces they occupy. Their reliance on traditional methods was evidenced in touches like the firewood houses, graveyards and hand painted signage.


Back in Tartu, the river boat came about after documents were unearthed depicting the designs for a Peipsi river boat. Some friends decided to follow what they could of the instructions and build their own version using the old technologies. This heritage project would allow them to create a unique and (one assumes) lucrative living from the fruits of the past. Jömmu is the product of an entrepreneurial Tartu youth.


Sustainable Tourism

 Illustration: Sketch of house interior

The RMK impressed me in many ways with their use of natural materials left in their organic state. Amongst these were a trio of dioramas made of rolled paper or cut from thin sheets of birch. These were on display at the national park visitor centre and proved yet again that elegant simplicity wins out against overdoing tech. They depicted three stages of the national park area, the pre soviet approach, the soviet approach and then the time up to the present, post soviet times. These displays would have been relatively cheap to produce, doubtless using local materials and when they require replacing, I can only assume they will be repurposed or they can even be composted. At the same RMK centre we were taken for a hike by Triin and taught to look for cultural heritage in the landscape. She pointed out that walls and dykes made by people hundreds or even thousands of years ago can still be visible and mistaken for natural features. Since then I’ve been trying to ‘read’ every rural landscape I have been in, looking for clues of times past.


At Tivioli, we visited a former shale oil ash hill. The whole area used to treat the hill as a source of pride in its prosperity, but with the decline of mining the hill became a dark blight on the landscape. Local people attempted to ignore it, despite it casting a literal shadow over them. Thanks to the foresight of two adventurous friends (yes, really) since 2005 the hill has been an outdoor adventure and ski centre. The hill was volatile and hot even after decades of inactivity, but that residual heat has been harnessed in order to power a hostel and conference centre on site. Interestingly no one seems to know how long that might last. The slag was covered with soil, allowing new growth and rendered it safe for international motocross, ski slaloms and discgolf courses. The UK could learn a lot from making use of such a negative and depressed site, converting it into a sustainable and enduring asset both locally, nationally and internationally. With 80 – 10,000 visitors expected every year, the area has seen an increase in visitors, some from Tallinn favouring it over the longer drive south to more traditional skiing destinations.


It was the stunning weather we had in Tallinn and the reviews that encouraged me to visit the Open Air Museum. Covering several acres, the museum brings together all the regions of the country to create a tiny portrait of Estonia’s rural communities. The map of the site illustrates the differences in each region and allows visitors to look at each in turn. There are windmills, schools, churches and farms, saunas, shops and huts, each with its own unique character, distinct from each other and exploring the regional differences in past Estonia. The buildings dated from as early as the 17th century up to the 20th and appear to be mainly authentic, perhaps shipped there from each region. Some were well made copies – all of them full scale. The spaces inside all the wooden structures were so helpful in conveying what life might have been like. Many were filled with objects particular to the use of that building. It was here that I could fully see the strong Estonian relationship with timber and the forest.

At the Lake Peipus house, aside from electricity, we had none of the usual comforts expected when staying in a cottage. However, the reliance on a well for water and on wood burners and lanterns for warmth made me appreciate how unsustainable the way we live has become. Treats here were the sauna (except in Estonia it is merely a way of life), air dried fish and the silence.


Positive Opportunities

 Illustration: shale oil industry scarred landscape

 I have to confess that I don’t recall hearing the term ‘Dark Tourism’ before this course in Estonia, but it was brought up shortly after our visit to the mining museum. Whilst not immediately apparent as a dark tourism destination, it certainly offered a tough and genuine experience of being underground in the cold, damp cramped conditions mineworkers were used to. Luckily they have harnessed the decline in mining as an opportunity to explore that element of the past and to help visitors understand what that may have been like.


When we met Imre, none of us were prepared for the ‘ shale oil safari’ we were about to embark on. He piled us into his towering, custom made 4×4 vehicle and skillfully (but dramatically) drove us off-road through bizarre isolated landscapes scarred by shale oil mining. He explained the features of the landscape and vegetation, pointing out views and geological qualities we would never have otherwise spotted. He gave us some white-knuckle action and built his business in a place generally considered to be a wasteland, offering a unique trip in a place where interesting work can be scarce.

 For decades, the East of the country with its ‘Onion Route’ hasn’t been recognised as a viable tourist destination. Apparently even many Estonians ask themselves “why would we go there?” Increasingly it is synonymous with cultural exploration. It’s proximity to Russia, the romance and mystique of the Old Believers and their traditions and the food are all enticing people back. It sells itself as a cultural destination. Recently an annual summer celebration is held with homes opening as pop up cafes, activities for families and a general opening of doors occur. Last year they had to close many of the cafés before official lunchtime as many had already sold out – they were not prepared for the sudden influx of thousands of visitors. This year there are big plans to keep encouraging visitors and to match supply with demand.


 Overall this was an extremely useful course. The Estonian approach to interpretation is generally elegant and the use of sustainable materials taught me that I can seize the opportunity to consider similar pared down approaches in my own practice.

 Highlights of the trip for me (apart from all the wonderful food) were visiting the convent and the Russian Old Believers Praying House. They were completely outside my normal sphere of experience and allowed a glimpse into an entire culture within another culture. The RMK forests and nature schools were wonderful to see, they made me want to spend more time outside, learning about nature. Also, the manor houses and schools were intriguing as a system we just don’t have in the UK. I’d love to learn more about them. Of course, seeing the huge statue of Kalevipoeg at dusk on the last night was an extra treat. It felt like the whole trip came together that night. We had heard about the mythical giant all week and seen erratic boulders, but that night we met him, full scale.

 There were very few elements of the trip that could be reasonably improved. It is a very intense week with very little time for reflection or time alone to write up notes or process the week. To cut the activities and visits would afford more time for this, but perhaps at the detriment of experiencing Estonia. I was very lucky with the trip as I enjoyed the company of everyone present, but I can imagine scenarios that could be difficult with such a hectic week! The Tartu creative industry centre was good to know about but perhaps didn’t seem as relevant as most of the other visits we made. The Ice Age Centre was interesting as a case study in less successful interpretation, but otherwise left me a bit cold.

 UK museums could learn from Estonia to keep things simpler and rely less on screens. They are so ubiquitous now in daily life, the temptation seems to be to engage visitors with more of what they are used to, rather than challenge them with something different. The RMK, along with Palmse and Saagadi Manors in particular were so good at creating spaces and experiences not in existence elsewhere. The National Museum in Tartu did a very good job of engaging visitors with myriad ways to interpret history and concepts using space, light, sound, pictograms and engaging displays. I was so impressed by Estonia and I will certainly be returning to visit all the places we missed and to explore the forests, visit craft hubs and museums. I also hope to continue making sketches and drawings based on what I experienced, bringing the themes in this report into my practice.

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