Environmental and Natural History Interpretation study trip to Estonia 2017

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15th – 22nd May 2017

Andrew Howard, Graphic Designer, Forest Enterprise Scotland


In May 2017 I travelled to Tallinn on a study trip focusing on interpretation in the north/north east of Estonia. The trip was funded by Erasmus+ and supported by ARCH as the project promoters. The host partners were the State Forest Service. As I work as a graphic designer for Scotland’s ‘State Forest Service’, I was particularly interested to see how RMK State Forest Management Centre view and produce interpretation. Our guide for the trip was Maarika Naagel who had put together a very varied and interesting programme.

A complex past – a proud future

One theme that quickly became evident as we travelled through the country and listened to the stories of the people was what a complex history Estonia has and how proud they now are to be a free and independent country. For almost all of the past eight centuries, Estonia has been governed by foreign reign, including Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Russia and finally the Soviet Union.

The implications of this turbulent history became even more apparent when we visited the area near the Russian border and the group of people called the Old Believers. They had to flee from Russia across the border to Estonia for fear of torture for refusing to change their religion from Russian Orthodox during the 17th Century Church reform. They had to practice their religion in secret until they were finally formally recognised by the Russian Empire at the start of the 20th Century and were allowed to build their prayer house in 1904.

The national flag is a common sight as it is proudly flown from buildings throughout the country and acts as a striking symbol of the Estonia’s independence. Hele Mai Mängel, our guide for the walking tour of Tartu, told us the flag was designed by the Estonian Students Union of Tartu and the colours of the flag represent – blue (for the sky), black (for the ground) and white (for freedom). Maarika and Hele became quite emotional when they told the story of Hele’s uncle hiding his flag in his chimney for many years and his immense pride in taking it out and flying it when Estonia regained its independence in 1991.

State Forest similarities

We had one whole day focusing on RMK, the State Forest Company, and one additional visit later in the later in the week, but RMK had a presence at several sites we visited throughout the week with various information panels.

51% of Estonia is covered by forest and RMK maintains 45% of that, employing around 700 full-time staff. Compared to Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) who have around 800 staff, managing 9% of Scotland’s land (two thirds of which is forest), means Estonian foresters have a slightly larger area coverage per person (land mass of Estonia 45,000km sq, Scotland 80,000km sq).

Our first experience of RMK was within part of the Palmse Manor buildings in the Lahemaa National Park. There were quite a lot of manor houses in the areas we visited and as most of them seem to be near or within forested areas they make suitable bases to promote RMK’s work. I was extremely impressed with the quality of interpretation display in the Visitor Information point at Palmse Manor. The information was interesting and engaging, and had a nice balance of interactive screens and static interpretation, as well as the use of interesting objects to help make the information come alive. There was a very strong, clear and clean graphic style to the information, which overall made it a very professional looking centre. There was just one member of staff at the entrance, who was weaving on a traditional spinning wheel and was also there to give information and sell a small amount of traditional wooden gifts.

Interpretation at the Lahemaa National Park information point at Palmse Manor

We then went on to visit the RMK Visitor Centre at Oandu, and started off with a tour of the small ‘museum’ which was quirkily designed to imitate the head forester’s office – using embroidered dolls as the foresters! I liked the fact the inspiring RMK website was available at the front entrance (which is something that was repeated at all RMK receptions) and was impressed with the interactive screens and films cleverly built into the displays. There was also a beautiful display made out of delicate plywood showing the development of forestry from 1920’s to the present day, and a lovely large nature education room with plenty of interesting objects and sniff jars.

The ranger, Triin Kusmin, then took us on a guided tour of the heritage trail. She was very knowledgeable and showed us lots of interesting features including the beautiful feathered markings left from resin tapping and a reconstructed ‘wolf trap’ (wolves still roam free in the forests of Estonia along with brown bear and elk – beavers, deer and boar do so too, but are controlled). I asked Triin how her team was structured and she said she was in the Recreation and Visitor Section of which there were around 40 – 50 covering the whole country. It seems that the foresters/rangers write the content for the information and although they do have an in-house designer, most of the visitor centre work is contracted out to design companies. We finished off having tea in a remarkable barn/shed, which was another interpretive centre in its own right. This felt very ‘hands-on’ traditional forestry, showing the different kinds of harvested wood and their uses, large black and white photographs and old signs and tools which you could touch and use – it was really nicely done and felt very ‘real’. I was really impressed that even the ‘work shed’ had been converted and made to look really nice and felt this is something that is missing in what we do over here in Scotland. Triin was excellent, and reminded me very much of some of our recreation rangers in Scotland, which was kind of reassuring – even the RMK corporate clothing is not unlike ours and the whole experience of recreation and the focus on education and nature felt very similar to FES, so it was really interesting to see.

Oandu nature hike: Triin showing us how the wolf trap works and the feathered markings left from resin tapping

Our final part of the day took us to the RMK Nature School at Sagadi Manor – another manor house which RMK have a strong presence in. We started off in a temporary exhibition about mosqitoes, which was really nicely done – quite quirky and with a strong design style and sense of humour. We then went upstairs to their permanent ‘forest exhibition’ which was quite dark and had a real ‘forest feel’, using lots of real trees. The displays were interspersed with screens showing films and animations as well as taxidermy of local species and lots of forestry related equipment. Again, it was a nice mix of the old and the new and it felt very appropriate. Our guide, Helen Tuusti, then showed us to her Nature School classroom – another inspiring building with lots of space and learning resources. I was really impressed with the focus and importance they put onto nature education – it was built into everywhere we visited and it felt like it was planned into it rather than as an add-on.

Sagadi Manor: I liked the use of nets in the mosquito exhibition to separate the information and seating areas; and an example of a piece of interpretation in the forest exhibition

At the end of the week, we stopped in at the RMK Aegviidu Nature Centre which is at the crossroads of two long-distance routes through Estonia – one at 375km and the longer one at 820km. RMK own and run some of the accommodation and campsites available on the routes so it really is quite an important part of their recreational offering. We had a quick look around the building and in the forest shop – I was particularly interested by the ‘forest passport’ which encourages long-distance walkers to collect stamps along their treks and visit certain points and places – it seemed a really nice, simple idea. We went on a short boardwalk trail at the site and I liked the fact they’d built in short ramps and steps off the boardwalk to encourage you to explore certain parts of the forest and to make it easy to do for people with mobility problems.

A Fitting National Museum

I was quite simply blown away by Europe’s newest museum – the Estonian National Museum. The building itself is situated on the landing strip of an important military airbase during Soviet Rule. The French architect’s, DGT, cleverly designed the building in a wedge shape, which gives the impression of taking off from the runway – the back of the building is 2.5m high, reaching up to 15m high at the front. As you approach the entrance you get a sense of the buildings enormity and projection, and its stunning glass windows have a beautiful repeating pattern of eight-pointed stars, an abstraction of the national Estonian flower – the cornflower. Inside, the huge communal areas were light and spacious – with simple block graphic maps and metal lettering signage applied to the walls. Even the thick, wooden doors to the first exhibition were beautifully engraved with another intricate graphic pattern – the whole building felt very fresh and modern.

Estonian National Museum: the pattern inspired by the cornflower, which covers the glass façade of the museum; and the graphic symbols recessed into the wall in the Echo of the Urals exhibition

The museum hosts 2 permanent and 4 temporary exhibitions, and they matched the high quality of the building design. The first exhibition was called ‘Echo of the Urals’ – giving an insight to the Finno-Ugric peoples traditions and rituals in the natural environment. The walls had wonderful recessed graphic figures and symbols built into them, which were inspired by ancient diverse cultural patterns and designed especially for the museum. It feels a very immersive experience – with a large interactive sound map projected on the wall and a floor graphic river with swimming fish that interact with you as you walk along! To add structure to the exhibition, the rooms are themed into a spring morning, a summer day, an autumn evening and a winter’s night, which add to the immersive experience while telling the stories of the different tribes. A lot of the displays were very tactile and had huge photographic backdrops which helped pull everything together, and along with the screen animations and interactivity, made for an incredibly impressive experience. To exit the exhibition, there was a touchpad using symbols from the exhibition which you had to press in the right order to release the door, which I thought was a really nice idea.

The second permanent exhibition – entitled ‘Encounters’ – describes the changes that have taken place in everyday life to ordinary people in Estonia. Interestingly, you start in the present and travel backwards, starting with the invention of Skye and ‘e-Estonia’. Next to each exhibit is a mounted e-book (like a kindle) and, using a language card which you are given at the entrance, you can choose between Estonian, Russian and English simply by swiping the card over the screen. This seemed a very simple and effective way of handling different languages and I’d be interested to explore this idea in some of our exhibitions in Scotland. Along one side of this exhibition was a huge, waved and ribbed, textured wall, which was very tactile and gave a real feeling of flow. It also acted like a curtain and allowed some exhibits to be kept in the dark behind it’s paneled wall – such as the well-preserved remains of a woman’s skeleton, of which there was a touch-screen interactive of outside! It was very well designed.

Even the temporary exhibitions were well designed, using a ‘pop-up bubble’ to immerse yourself in themed displays and masked curtains to explore different living spaces.

The whole museum was beautifully designed both inside and out, and the design of the building really does reflect the current state of the country – rising from it’s difficult past and soaring towards it’s future.

Inspiration everywhere

We visited many other interesting projects and places, but I will just highlight some of the ones that left more of an impression on me.

The day spent exploring the Industrial and Soviet heritage of North East Estonia was very interesting, particularly the story of the Kiviõli Adventure Centre. Our host, Imre Poom, told us how they turned a 90-year old oil shale ash hill, which had become an eyesore and an embarrassment to the area, into an adventure centre. The initial idea was to build a ski-slope, but it soon became apparent it could host all sorts of other adventure sports including motorcross, mountain-biking, gravity racing and a 600m zip-line. It was a fantastic idea, as Estonia is so flat – these man-made ash hills are some of the highest hills in the country – and although it took them 12 years to construct including a 5 year period of safety checks, it attracts 80-100,000 visitors per year to an area which has really struggled with tourism. The following trips on the adventure safari and the visit down the Mining Museum were also really interesting. The experience of going down the mine with the ex-minor was very authentic and I liked the fact there wasn’t a lot of fixed interpretation – it was more about the experience and the noisy working machinery which helped give a feel of how it would have felt to be down there when the mine was in operation.

The successful promotion of the Onion Route near Lake Peipus on the Russian border is another good example of bringing tourism to an area which would otherwise struggle. The marketing-led approach by Liis Pärtelpoeg, who we met in Tartu, helped to sell the Onion Route as ‘one area, two nationalities, three cultures’ – bringing together the cultures of Estonians, Russians and Old Believers. Last year, their annual ‘buffet day’ attracted over 5000 visitors. The visit to the Peipsimaa Visitor Centre, which supports and develops the traditional handicrafts and customs of the Old Believers, was a very inspiring place with beautiful hand-printed textiles. I also thought their wooden light-box mounted display cases in their small museum display were simple but effective.

Peipsimaa Visitor Centre: the interpretation was very simple but effectively produced and displayed; handprinted textiles are created continuing the customs of the Old Believers

I thought the Centre for Creative Industries in Tartu was a fascinating and very worthwhile project. Started in 2009 and supported by EU funding, they invite creative individuals (or groups) to make their business case and from an average of 25 – 30 applicants a year they offer 15 – 20 places on their ‘incubation programme’, which supports their development mainly through training courses and studio space. They have fixed targets they need to hit throughout the programme, but they are seeing many positive results including many of their students exporting abroad and making a name on the international stage.

Tallinn was a very inspiring City. Our walking tour on the Sunday morning with our guide, Riin Alatalu, gave us an interesting insight into its complicated history – starting life as a hanseatic town in the middle ages and being a connecting point between the east and west. It was interesting to hear that only 11% of the old medieval town was bombed in 1944, although 50% of the living quarters were also hit. And since it was designated a conservation area in 1966 and then UNESCO World Heritage status 1997, there has been very little building since – perhaps only 10 buildings in the whole city.

And just when I thought I couldn’t be any more impressed, we visited the Lennusadam Sea Plane Harbour Museum, which was once the 7th most endangered heritage site in Europe and is built on the site of an old navel fortress. Our excellent guide, Herman, first took us to look around on-board the steam-powered icebreaker, Suur Tõll, built in Barrow-in-Furness in the UK and shared between Estonia and Finland – before taking us into the huge renovated Seaplane hangar which forms the museum. The impressive graphic design styles and features are quite striking from the moment you walk into the building, with lots of sea and fish related graphics and features and a timeline on the stairs, which helps add sense of anticipation as you climb them. Then you are just hit by the shear size of the vast single-space museum, with it’s huge seaplane propellers rotating in the roof space as fans. In this space is housed the 1930’s submarine, Lembit, a sea-plane and several other boats and maritime exhibits. I asked about the huge arched, twisting bridge at the far end and Herman explained that it was designed to the contour of the roof, so people could walk (or climb!) across to get of feeling of what it would be like to walk across the top of the hanger, which I thought was an interesting idea. Again, the level of static interpretation boards and interactive displays was of a very high standard and the whole experience of the ‘museum’ was really quite stunning.

Seaplane harbour: the whole museum is held within one vast single space and the interpretation boards are of very high standard along with the building/displays


‘The forest is a poor man’s fur coat’

I heard this saying as we were walking through the National Museum, and it struck a chord with me. Over half of Estonia is covered by forest, and you can see how much they value it in their management, interpretation and visitor centres, and in so many of their natural wooden products. I was very impressed with RMK, especially with the design of their visitor centres and interpretation – and the focus they have on nature and importance of environmental education. It was interesting and pleasing to see similarities with the way FES works here in Scotland – and how the Estonians deal with similar subjects and problems.

I was extremely impressed with the level of design and interpretation throughout the country, but I think the highlight for me was the Estonian National Museum. It quite simply took my breath away, and perfectly symbolises the way I see Estonia – as a forward-thinking country which is flourishing since its independence. Despite all this, ‘e-Estonia’ is not getting too carried away with its technology, and still holds its origins and traditions at heart.

I feel I learnt so much from the trip and have been inspired by so many of the projects and places I saw. I have already delivered a presentation of my trip to my immediate design team and I plan to present to other parts of the organisation too. I may look into writing an article for our newsletter and perhaps wider afield, but I think the area I see benefiting most is in the projects I am involved in. I’ve picked up so many ideas and I’m sure they’ll inspire some of my future work – it’s been very valuable to see how another European Country deals with design and interpretation and the use of several languages.


I’d like to say a big thank you Erasmus+ and ARCH for funding and supporting the trip, and to the Forest State Company and all our hosts and guides for their time and interesting talks and visits.

A huge thank you to our wonderful host and guide for the trip, Maarika Naagel. For me, Maarika embodies everything that is good about Estonia; her energy, enthusiasm and passion for her country is in abundance and made the trip extra special – we couldn’t have wished for a better guide to show us this beautiful country. Thank you Maarika.

I’d also like to say a special mention and thank you to Libby Urquhart for making this trip possible for me – it was everything I could have wished for and more, and I think this will very much inspire my future work. Thank you Libby.

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