Estonia: Rapid Development & Deep Traditions

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Matthew Bellhouse-Moran (Scottish Maritime Museum)

Before our visit to Estonia I hadn’t even pre-conceived notions of what the country was like. My knowledge was limited to schoolyard quizzes with Dad on capitals of Europe (Tallinn) and was always breathlessly rattled out along with Latvia (Riga) and Lithuania (Vilnius). Then I left primary school, forgot all the capitals, and barely thought of Estonia again.

Our study week with Maarika revealed to us a beautiful, modern and forward-thinking country which served as an excellent comparison with Scotland in terms of managing cultural heritage – not with a view of ‘better or worse’, but simply providing more data to reflect on and inform practises at home.

Certainly, there were many differences and similarities. The Second World War and Soviet Occupation left much of Estonia’s built heritage in a perilous state, and the effort expended on its repair, restoration and maintenance – and the speed at which it was undertaken – is extremely impressive. Particularly in Tallinn, where much of the historic old town was flattened in the 20th century, including the old town square. The approach to built heritage seems very different to Scotland – the goal seems to be reconstruction. Some of this was in the Soviet era: at Saaremaa castle, extensive rebuilding and restoration work was undertaken in the 1980s, but the approach seems to have carried over with the bastion fortifications around the castle having been rebuilt in the last couple of years, with similar works in Kuresaare castle. This contrasts with the approach in Scotland for listed and scheduled monuments, of preservation and stabilisation rather than large-scale reconstruction. Philosophical approaches aside the quality of the restoration work was excellent, and is testament to the value Estonians place on their heritage. As a burgeoning independent nation, I wonder if reconstruction is part of Estonia and Estonians constructing and maintaining and national identity through their heritage, marking themselves and their continuity against the years of foreign occupation.

Rapid development is the watchword for Estonia. New infrastructure, new roads, integration of technology and heavy investment – both nationally and from the European Union – speak of a country facing forward. It is heartening to see that this is not to the detriment or exclusion of natural, built and cultural heritage. Tradition runs deep and, for the most part, it is incorporated into Estonian identity along with this rapid progress. Development has been carefully balanced, in the main, with nature. Estonians value nature and their relationship with it in a different way to Scotland, it being more integrated and present in their lives, all around them rather than being something one takes a trip to visit. People walked in the forests, swam in the sea, grew fruits and vegetables, and there wasn’t a flit of litter in sight the whole week.

Above, exploring Tallinn

Beyond these broader observations, the real highlight was the calibre of the people we visited, both professionally and personally they were wonderful, they cared about what they did and did it well. The overarching themes were of identity: Estonia is European, Estonia looks towards Europe and Scandinavia, yet has its own distinct culture like nowhere else. The work of people such as Mari, who seeing elements of Sorve culture at risk of being forgotten expended huge time and effort and energy in preserving it for future generations, was reflected elsewhere in the energy invested in preserving and cataloguing traditional costume at the Centre for National Dress, for example.

A personal highlight was a visit to the Estonian Maritime Academy in Saaremaa, part of Tallinn Technical Insitute. Unbeknownst to me the Maritime Academy has a very impressive testing tank for testing model hulls of vessels. The museum I work at cares for the Denny Test Tank in Dumbarton, which tested hulls from 1883 up until the 2000s. It was extremely interesting talking with the staff there to see how a modern test tank is run with modern clients, and comparing it with the heyday of the Denny Tank seventy years ago, in general very little had changed, but in specifics and the application of technology, it was on another planet! Computers and cameras completing calculations immediately that would have taken a team of naval architects and analysts weeks and months to work out.

I think a good example of the Estonian approach to heritage can be read in the Vaabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom in Tallinn. The interpretation text was simple and effective, the presentation using technology was imaginative and well done, and throughout the horrors of German and Russian occupation, the message was not “pity us” but “this was so”. It does not place blame or encourage anger, but is powerfully sad, with the permanent exhibition ending with a note of optimism. Not a national museum in the sense of a government funded organisation, the museum is a national museum in that it tells the story of a nation and encourages and defines identity. However, in contrast to say, the National Museum of Scotland, the focus is on individual human stories, of human suffering and resilience without aggressive ‘othering’ of outsiders, collaborators and subjugators. I was really impressed and came away feeling very moved. “This was so, remember how it was, but forgive, look forward, and be vigilant”.

Looking forward myself, the visit to Estonia encouraged some soul-searching with regards to the UKs nebulous position on its exit from the European Union. It was hard not to notice that on every major piece of infrastructure and every institution, be they roads, schools, museums, galleries, businesses, there was somewhere to be found the EU flag. Estonia has received significant funding for its infrastructure from the EU and those we asked about it were broadly very encouraging and enthusiastic about their relationship with the Union. They strongly identified with and as Europeans. This is a view very different to the UK as a whole and a significant proportion of Scotland, and I can’t help but wonder who will step in and fund similar projects in the UK after Brexit. Certainly voluntary isolation from Europe was mystifying to a nation that actively developed its relationships and looks, generally, to the West rather than the East.

Overall the trip was extremely worthwhile as it showcased projects and their managers who, faced with difficulties and roadblocks, persevered and were succeeding. Sometimes, as a sector, we often forecast doom and gloom and forget to look at the real successes that we are achieving. It was nice to be reminded that cultural and natural heritage attracts people with a real love and passion for what they do, and that what we do has value.

Above, the Denny Test Tank at Dumbarton © Scottish Maritime Museum. Belowm the Test Tank at the Estonian Maritime Academy

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