Tallinn Museums

Tallin Estonia Museums are interesting places to visit. We visited four of them.

Estonian History Museum

The Estonian History Museum provides an overview of the country’s history and culture. The museum is located in the Great Guild building and includes information on the league of merchants that built the building and played such an important role in the economic development of both the city and the country. Among the highlights are:

  • Video recaps of the history of Estonia and Tallinn, from prehistoric times, through its initial settlement, to its long history of occupation by 10 foreign powers. But regardless of which country actually ruled Estonia, it was the Baltic Germans (primarily German merchants who settled in Estonia) who typically controlled the actual levels of power within the country from the early 13th through the early 20th century—even under Danish, Swedish and Russian rulers.
  • Overview of the guild’s origin and functions, which consisted primarily of the most prosperous Baltic German Hanseatic League merchants. They used the hall for regular meetings and especially for the four major festivals that they held each year as a means of fostering communications and brotherhood among the membership. Although the meetings and festivals were all lubricated by plenty of beer, and to a lesser extent wine, it was viewed as bad form to overindulge. While the initial days of the festivals, which could last up to 10 days, were focused largely on ceremonies and entertainment, they evolved into family and elite community affairs with feasts, dancing, competitions and charitable functions.
  • A number of interesting exhibits that examine a wide range of issues including the economic development of the country, the emergence of its educational system, its culture and life in a country that has been dominated by many and very different foreign powers over almost its entire existence. Many of the observations from these displays are mentioned in our blog, Estonia Fast Facts.
  • A few smaller exhibits that address issues well beyond the borders of Estonia and the Baltic. These include displays of coins from different countries and periods, weapons from Medieval times to the early 20th century and a broad range of cultural artifacts from different countries and periods.

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Tallinn City Museum

The Tallinn City Museum provides a brief history of the city, the historic Town Hall building in which the museum is located, and the composition and operation of the Medieval city government.

This museum is located in the city’s historic Town Hall, a large, intimidating structure and city symbol that was first mentioned in preserved documents in 1248 and expanded to its current size in 1404. It is topped by a tall Renaissance spire and, as a break in the solemnity, is surrounded by fun, dragonhead-shaped waterspouts. The interior has gone through a number of alterations, including a division of two very tall stories into three and a partitioning of floors to provide more office space. The building, which currently houses a city history museum includes fully restored rooms including large, vaulted Entrance Hall (for large meetings, official receptions and medieval minstrel performances), the Council Chamber (in which laws were debated and enacted and justice administered) , the Town Council Room (as the office for officials) and an attic that details the building’s long restoration process. The museum also contains a number of medieval Town Hall artifacts ranging from 16th-centurey tapestries, to councilman badges, the city’s ornately painted iron money chest and the original “Old Thomas” weathervane that was created and placed atop the tower in honor of a peasant who was granted the position for life in honor of his beating official noble contestants in an archery contest. It also contains an interesting exhibit that traces the evolution of clothes through the city’s long history.

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Occupation Museum

The Occupation Museum examined the history of the country’s successive occupation by the Russians, the Germans and especially the long post WWII occupation by the Russians. it covered a total of 52 years of the country’s history.

Although Tallinn has been occupied for most of its existence, the museum is devoted to the particularly tragic period from 1939 to 1991 when it was caught in a military vice between Germany and the Soviet Union. The story is told primarily though about half a dozen, 30-minute documentary films that are supported by explanatory boards and a number of artifacts from the period. The story begins in 1939, when Hitler effectively traded the supposedly independent pawn of Estonia to its then ally Stalin, giving Russia permission to occupy and establish its own military bases in the independent country. Under the agreement, the more than 16,000 German residents of Estonia were allowed to return to Germany. 13,000 of them did so.

While Russia proceeded with its plans, the “alliance” broke down when Germany invaded Russia in 1941 and easily swept up Estonia in the process. The country was occupied by Germany for the remainder of WWII, during which Russian planes bombed Estonia in an attempt to dislodge the Germans, destroying 20 percent of Tallinn in the process.

At the end of the War, Russia effectively annexed Estonia, along with most of the rest of Eastern Europe, thereby forming the Soviet Union. This prompted a mass exodus from Estonia: an exodus that was partly voluntary, with almost 100,000 fleeing to the West, and partly involuntary, with more than 30,000 potential dissident Estonians being deported to Russia—primarily Siberia where many, if not most, ended up dying by the end of the war. About 15,000 other Estonians left the cities and the countryside to try to ride out the occupation by living in the country’s extensive forests: Some to join the resistance; others just to survive. (Overall, about a quarter of the nation’s total population ended up leaving the country between 1941 and independence in 1991.)

By the end of the 40’s, Russia had cracked down on dissent and begun to:

  • Collectivize Estonian farms;
  • Shift the country’s economic base from agriculture to heavy industry; and
  • “Russify” the country, by flooding it with about 500,000 Russians, establishing Russian as the required language and changing the country’s education system to emphasize Marxist and Leninist teachings.

Unfortunately, the collective farms couldn’t meet increasingly stringent production quotas required to feed its own population, much less ship part of its production to Russia. Shortages were rampant and rations were stingy.

The political and economic situation began to loosen after Stalin’s death and the accession of Khrushchev. Farmers were provided incentives to overproduce, and economic reforms gave local managers more control over industrial production. Then, after the failed Budapest uprising, Russia began to move away from Stalinist overt, mass terror tactics in favor of more clandestine arrests and torture in rooting out dissidents and resistance fighters and to threats of deportation (to Siberia) as a means of dealing with dissident sympathizers.

By the 60’s efforts to loosen the heavy Russian hand faded in favor of voluntary Russification, under which a growing number of people joined and played increasingly senior roles in the local Communist party in an attempt to soften the restrictions from inside the system, rather from outside.

By the 70’s and 80’s, however, the Soviet System was in a severe state of decline, with dramatically falling agricultural and industrial production. Moscow was forced into attempts to loosen restrictions and reform its entire economic system. But, as this loosening led to greater nationalism and efforts to evade an even subvert the system, Russia again cracked down on its satellites, including the Baltic countries. But by this time, the situation was spinning out of control. Yeltsin tried to pacify the Baltics by promising greater sovereignty. A locally called plebiscite resulted in 80+ percent of Estonians voting for complete independence. By 1991, events had spun out of Russia’s control. The Soviet Union fell apart and Estonia finally gained its long-sought independence.

Other, smaller exhibits at the museum focused on Russian attempts to quash Western music and Estonia’s successful attempt to use this music to foster national unity and successfully launch its bloodless, “Singing Revolution”. (See our upcoming post on Estonia Fast Facts for more about this).

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Niguliste Church Museum

Niguliste Church Museum is an historic and important structure in its own right and was initially part of the city’s fortifications. This museum, which is located in the originally-named St. Nicholas Church that was commissioned in the mid-13th century by German Hanseatic merchants. It is now a museum that contains many religious masterpieces, as well as some quirky carved stone figures (many of which are under cover during renovation) and coats of arms of early noble members of the congregation. It has a number of 15th and 17th century wood sculptures, including St. George and the Dragon and a nice collection of the original church’s silver items. Most important are two large alter pieces—one four-panel, 1482 painting of scenes from the life of Saint Nicholas and the other a triptych of Saint Mary and most importantly, a roughly 15-foot remnant of a 98-foot 15th-century canvas frieze that depicts the image of death (in the form of a skeleton), visiting people of all social and economic classes.


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