Interpretation of Natural and Cultural Heritage: Engagement and Learning in Estonia

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Fernanda Acosta Ballesteros – Erasmus+ report

August 2022

Interpretation of Natural and Cultural Heritage: Engagement and Learning in Estonia

On 3 August 2022, I attended the ARCH NET 6 ‘Interpretation of Natural and Cultural Heritage of Estonia’ course, which offered me the opportunity to learn, get inspired and reflect on how we engage, and present heritage in Scotland. Hosted by Maarika Naagel of Viitong Heritage Tours, developed by ARCH network and funded by Erasmus+, this opportunity aimed to promote the culture of cooperation between the public and private sectors and furnish beneficiaries with vocational skills and experience.

The course was structured so we could understand how the heritage and tourism sectors interlace to provide opportunities for the community to engage and participate with the country, its culture and history. As part of its agenda, we visited diverse businesses and organisations to hear first-hand from professionals working in the heritage, culture and tourism sectors about how they work and connect with others.

Within my roles as Marketing and Communications Officer and Heritage Learning Assistant, I often seek to improve how we connect people to archaeology and heritage. The course had a particular focus on interpretation – how we tell our stories and present matters to others – a topic I am truly passionate about and a skill necessary and important to both of my roles. Taking the course in Estonia was a very meaningful experience, rich in content and inspiring on many levels.

Hidden Treasures of Saaremaa’s West Coast – Engagement and Learning Outdoors

One fantastic case study of interpretation, engagement and learning was shown through our visit to Miku metsapark (Miku Forest Park). Located in Saare County near the Vilsandi National Park Centre, Miku Forest Park offers a great opportunity for all visitors to experience, learn and reflect on their heritage and environment. The trail, based in the middle of Miku Forest, has various stations with different settings and objects which invite participants to learn and experience their heritage through sensory and hands-on activities. Some of these activities include wood sawing, engaging with various everyday tools, learning about Saaremaa’s vegetation, foraging and gathering inside a traditional wooden tepee.

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Maarika – our site guide – explained to the group that Estonians have always been forest people and that their ancestors have always got everything they needed from the forest. This reflection – a recurring theme throughout the trip – was a significant way to describe what one takes from the experience of visiting Miku Forest Park.

I found it fascinating that this site remains open all year long to visitors, and everyone is allowed to use it at any given time, making sense of their surroundings and creating their own interpretations. In this site, interpretation is presented in a completely different way to most heritage sites which are often full of information panels, text and even technological aids to help people understand and experience things. In contrast, Miku Forest Park does this in a way that the person explores, touches, smells, feels and inquires while gaining a comprehensive understanding of how things used to and continue to work and building their own interpretation of what they are seeing and experiencing.

The trail offered a superb opportunity to engage with archaeology. The site is located in the middle of beautiful forest land, covered in trees, bushes, fossils, lichen, weeds, and flowers and surrounded by all its fauna which makes itself visible in many ways provoking human presence to become very noticeable. Small clues have been carefully placed throughout the trail, inviting visitors to reflect on this site’s past, present, and future. For example, some years ago, visitors left some glass bottles as rubbish, which the Miku Forest Park team decided to leave intact. This was done purposefully to allow people to reflect on our print as humans, the stories objects tell, the degradability of materials, the development of ecosystems around human material culture, and how those bottles, if unmoved, are likely to be there for many years to come.

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The Lümanda Lime Park, located in western Saaremaa, also offers a fascinating example of a site offering outstanding learning opportunities, where the natural and the archaeological collide to illustrate and give us a glimpse of Estonian life, heritage, and its natural environment. The park offers a walking trail to learn about the lime production process alongside space for the community to host events and demonstrations. The cost to take a tour is €4 per adult and free for children.

Limestone expert Priit Penu guided us through a trail of limestone kilns built at different stages. The park has been designed meticulously to enhance the public’s understanding of the limestone production process. Priit was fantastic at explaining the practical skills and materials needed at different stages of limestone making, including quarrying, burning, and slaking. He also shared the stories of the folk who have long lived in the area and worked in the industry, enriching our understanding of the historical processes affecting the region and how it has led to contemporary Estonian life.

Lümanda Lime Park mixes various interpretative practical methods to immerse its visitors into its history. It is mainly set as an outdoor trail allowing onlookers to submerge themselves in a multi-sensory experience. Nevertheless, contrasting Miku Forest Park, Lümanda Lime Park has various interpretative panels with stories and photographs of the people who have and continue working in limestone production in the region. These panels have been translated into multiple languages, including Finnish and English, allowing foreign visitors to engage with the content prepared for them. In addition, Priit’s guidance was incredibly inspiring; he was great at conveying his passion for limestone and was prepared to answer every single question that came his way. I appreciated how they had a physical way of answering questions and demonstrating every single element of the tour – from the most technical of questions to the simplest, Priit had everything covered. We finished the tour by watching a mini documentary summarising our whole experience and watching Priit demonstrate the process of slaking in real-time.

Lümanda lime park offers an incredible archaeology learning opportunity. Not only do we see the archaeological remains of a long history of lime production in the region, but we also learn about the materials these kilns were built and the materials that they produced to influence the built environment and life in Estonia. Through the stories of folk who worked in the kilns, we can engage, understand, and reflect on their impact and relation to the region’s environment and history. Limestone especially offers a fascinating and remarkable example, as it is a material with a cyclical nature mainly manipulated by the work and influence of humans. On a more personal level, the way I took with me all the knowledge of not only a site and its history but also all the chemical processes that happen to produce this material is evidence of the quality and excellence of this site.

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Miku Forest Park and Lümanda Lime Park offer an inspiring case study for the development of outdoor Learning opportunities, examples which translated to the Scottish model could contribute significantly to various national strategies. On the one hand, incorporating the Scottish Government’s overarching objectives towards creating a more prosperous and sustainable country through the encouragement of outdoor education has been a priority of educators and teachers. As explained in a report by the Scottish Government: ‘outdoor learning provides pupils of all ages to learn through experiences outdoors, encouraging them to see each other and their surroundings in a different light, contributing to their wellbeing and helping them become successful lifelong learners who value a landscape and culture in a way not always possible to experience indoors’. Moreover, the drive to encourage more engagement, and invite people to learn, connect, understand, and care for archaeology and heritage are objectives sought by Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy and Our Place in Time – the Historic Environment Strategy for Scotland. Both instances would undoubtedly contribute to fulfilling these objectives, which offer hands-on and multi-sensory outdoor experiences that enhance learning and wellbeing. The way they are accessible at very low or no cost provides incredible opportunities for the public to engage with their collections at large, offering many opportunities to encourage engagement.

Creating Learning Connections in Distinct Settings

Two interesting examples of projects which interlaced both outdoor and indoor learning and engagement opportunities were those of Saaremaa Museum Episcopal Castle in Kuressaare and Muhu Heritage School in Liiva.

Saaremaa Museum is housed at Kuressaare Episcopal Castle on Saaremaa Island – a beautiful XIV-century structure built as part of a broader effort by Saaremaa inhabitants to resist foreign invasions and influence. The site and museum tell Estonia’s fascinating long history, touching on inspiring stories of resistance and power and including natural elements from its territory. Our host, Rita Rahu, was wonderful at showing us around, emphasising hidden stories and details found within the collection. She also tried to elaborate on the diverse ways the museum works to include foreign and local visitors, help the community, and raise its revenue.

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The museum currently hosts a temporal exhibition, ‘Vikings before Vikings, ’ based on the pre-Viking ships found in Salme, Saaremaa, in 2008. These findings came to revolutionise the local history, shining some light on forgotten stories and changing our global perception of Viking history. Kristina Magi had already pointed out this exhibition from VisitSaaremaa, who emphasised the importance of these findings to the local economy and how people and organisations were engaging with their heritage and re-writing their history. This is perfectly illustrated by an example given by Maarika when she mentioned that Saaremaa island inhabitants had recently modified and re-designed their coats of arms. The new coat of arms included motifs such as a shooting start – inspired by the 4000-year-old crater in Kaali – and a Viking ship added after the recent archaeological finds on the island. How the community has engaged with its contemporary history and made sense of its heritage and identity exposes a fascinating case study to reflect on the transience and fluidity of how we engage and make sense of our stories and histories.

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Image taken from Saaremaa Museum website

‘Vikings before Vikings’ shows a unique collection of items, including Norse swords, game pieces, and weapon remains, amongst other objects. As emphasised by Kristina Magi, the archaeological findings have gained much attention from neighbouring countries and have become a popular touristic attraction for Saaremaa. The display is supported by analogue and digital materials, engaging its onlookers in interactive learning opportunities. For example, there is a grey table-shaped screen with a projection of the boat, remains and objects as they were found; with the simple aid of a white paddle, people can place it on top of the object they want to learn more about and make it stand out from the rest. Another example was a traditional display of objects enclosed behind crystal panels; the way it was presented to engage onlookers further was to light up a screen behind each object showing the use each piece would have had in practice. I find that this interpretation works wonderfully in understanding archaeological objects as these tend to have deteriorated or be incomplete or misshapen. In addition, visitors are encouraged to visit the original location where the ship burials were found by the Salme River, which has been fitted in a concrete sculpture, decorated with wooden statues and aided by information panels.

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Muhu Heritage School in Liiva was another site intertwining outdoor and indoor learning and offering an impressive and inspiring example of a resilient and engaging heritage site. We were welcomed by Kadri Tuur, who encouraged us to propose activities and ideas on developments and interpretations from the outset. Kadri is a truly driven and inspiring woman with a passion for literature which she channels to express her love for Muhu. Standing beside St Catherine’s Church, Muhu Heritage School is comprised of a set of XIX-century buildings and gardens. After taking a tour of the outdoors featuring different areas and elements to engage with the site and island’s structure and environment.

The location and focus of the activities offered by the Muhu Heritage School provide an exciting opportunity to learn and engage with the natural and manufactured elements of our heritage and culture. Whereas the community garden is full of archaeology, flowers, and trees telling the local history and folk stories, participants can also remain indoors, using the community library (full of books that connect to Muhu), or participating in indoor activities. We were fortunate to be included in a traditional building skills workshop that aimed to set glass panels onto old windows taken from the historic building itself. This hands-on experience was precious because we gained valuable knowledge and experience. The workshop also made us reflect on the built environment, heritage and the natural resources available to make it possible. Another feature of this site I enjoyed was the ‘Heritage Corner’ – an open space where ‘random’ archaeological finds were kept. Like other sites’ interpretations, this feature allowed people to engage with the collection of objects on a multi-sensory level. It was quite an interesting experiment to try to guess what the things were – and after failing several times, I realised how deeply connected they were to this specific site making it hard for a foreign person like me to guess it straight away. This highlighted the site’s uniqueness and what it offered – we found a massive potential for storytelling, learning and engagement through exploring the area, participating in its hands-on activities and inquiring about its objects. A group of people standing outside a house Description automatically generated with low confidence

Learning and Engagement in an Urban setting

The contrast between the life on the islands and that of the mainland, in addition to the contrast between rural and urban, was evident when we made it to Tallin – Estonia’s capital city.

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Tallinn’s Maritime Museum in the city centre is probably the site visit that differed the most from our other stops. The Estonian Maritime Museum is the most popular museum in Estonia and one of the largest in the country. It promotes knowledge about, respect and love for the sea by collecting, preserving, and presenting Estonian maritime culture. The museum is based in two different buildings, The Fat Margaret cannon tower and the seaplane hangars. We were welcomed into the museum by Sander Jurisson and Mihkel Karu, who showed us around the collections and shared an insight into how the museums were curated, and the methods employed to engage the public.

Mihkel Karu emphasised from the tour’s outset that accessibility had been central during the interpretation of the whole collection; each item and station are presented, considering the many different needs the public could have. For instance, Sander and Mihkel explained that they often tried to have a 3D replica of key collection items for people with visual impairments. Likewise, all audio-visual materials have been translated to multiple languages, have subtitles, and have Estonian sign language interpretations.

The museum has an impressive set of analogue and digital aids to help people engage, learn, and further explore its collections. In some stations, one could find tablets with simulations and access to a massive archive with stories. Other areas were completely interpreted digitally; for example, a digital scale showing how much merchandise would fit a historic boat based on each person’s weight. Additionally, the museum was full of non-digital learning materials, such as activities presented in wooden materials or replicas of boat parts with which people played and took photos.

It was very interesting to reflect on what made this site so different from our other visits. Not only had previous experiences been based in a different setting and with different audiences at their hearts, but the budgets and teams differed considerably from one another. Nevertheless, it is apparent that from the smallest to the largest of organisations and groups we visited – all of them were working hard to appeal to and engage with the public at large to allow them to continue connecting with their heritage, history, and archaeology.


I feel very privileged to have taken part in the NET 6 Managing our Natural and Cultural Assets course, enabled by ARCH NET and funded by the Erasmus+ programme. It was an extraordinary opportunity, very rich in content and extremely inviting to continue reflecting, collaborating, innovating, and learning from one another. I also relished the opportunity to meet other professionals in the Heritage and Culture sectors, who shared experiences and made this experience the most enjoyable.

The ‘Interpretation of Natural and Cultural Heritage of Estonia’ course offered lots of really useful and inspirational case studies applicable and valuable to Scottish heritage learning and interpretation. From rural to urban, local to national, and based in outdoor, indoor and hybrid settings, our visits spotlighted successful ways of engaging people with their heritage, culture, and history. I found that the natural landscape and educational styles are similar to Scotland’s, which has been working hard to produce accessible and inclusive opportunities, provide meaningful connections, and contribute to the public’s wellbeing and development. This opportunity highlighted the importance and value of learning from one another and collaborating to make the cultural and natural something everyone can enjoy, care for and learn about.

I am infinitely grateful to Maarika Naagel, who opened the doors of her home to host us and shared her story, culture and country with lots of passion and dedication. I also would like to thank Libby and Seona from ARCH network – the project promoter – for allowing me the opportunity to take part in such an amazing experience through their work and support, and to Vicki, Ross, Hannah, Molly and David for being the perfect companions to such an adventure. Last but not least, I am infinitely grateful to the funders and coordinators of the programme for providing opportunities for people like me to continue exploring, growing, enjoying and sharing best practice, knowledge and the passion we hold for our natural and cultural heritage and environment.

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