For Estonians 2016 was huge in a bunch of ways. We elected our first female president, became the first country to send triplets to the Olympics and built a massive new house to show off a lot of really important old stuff. The house in question is the Estonian National Museum, or ERM, as Estonians would call it – and it’s a pretty big deal. Even though the museum is not in Tallinn, but in the South Estonian university town of Tartu, it’s still causing a lot of buzz.
Late last year, Tallinn Traveller Tours sent a delegation of tour guides educated in history, cultural sciences and general museum-visiting to Tartu to see if the 2.5-hour drive from the capital is really worth your time. It’s a huge place and trying to see everything in a single visit can be a dizzying experience, but we were still very impressed by what we saw. Here are five reasons why ERM in Tartu is the place to visit if you want to get to the bottom of what Estonia really is about.
1. It’s located on a former Soviet airfield
When the museum opened its doors on October 1st, it did so in a brand new modern building erected on the grounds of the abandoned Raadi Soviet airfield on the outskirts of Tartu. For Estonians, this location carries symbolic weight, as the museum can be seen as a shrine celebrating everything Estonian built over the remains of an occupying forces military base.
Photo credit: Embanville
The new building lies on the old runway of the airfield and follows its shape, making it 355.8 meters long and 71.7 meters wide. The project, designed by Dan Dorell, Lina Ghotmeh and Tsuyoshi Tane, is called “Memory Fields” and as you explore deeper into the long and narrow museum, the roof gradually slants downwards, symbolising our diminishing knowledge of history the further back in time we go. And sure enough, when it comes to the permanent exhibition “Encounters”, which takes you to a journey through Estonian history from the present day to prehistoric times, the older periods are fittingly represented at the back end of the building.
On the other hand, the upward-facing roof can also be seen to symbolise progress and hope as we move towards a brighter future. If life was GTA, you wouldn’t think twice about ramping a motorcycle off the thing while wearing one of those silly horse masks. They really have thought of everything.
2. Learn history through blasphemy
One of the highlights of ERM is “Encounters”, a well-put-together permanent exhibiton that spans almost the entire length of the building and offers a brilliantly insightful overview of Estonia’s past. Starting from the dawn of Estonian space exploration and making your way back to the earliest prehistoric finds, you’ll embark on a journey down the trail of time accompanied by artefacts from all epochs of local history.
As you journey back through the centuries, be sure to say “Hi” to The Lady of Kukruse. She‘s a skeleton of an 800-year-old Estonian gal and still remains one of the more significant archeological finds of the country. If millennia-old chicks are not your thing, you can stop by to appreciate the very first blue-black-white flag of the country from 1884.
“Encounters” doesn’t only dabble in dry history, though – it sheds light on Estonian culture as well. Nowadays Estonia is known for being both technologically advanced and one of the most non-religious countries in the world, so obviously the part about the Iconoclastic Fury of the 16th century presents you with a virtual Virgin Mary and lets you smash it into pieces. Apparently Estonians are so politically incorrect that we’ve turned punching the Mother of God in the face into an interactive experience. If you’re going to hell, you might as well get there in style.
3. Explore Estonia’s family tree
In the eyes of the Western world, Estonians are usually viewed as Eastern-European, but there’s an entire subgroup of different peoples that we’re historically tied to. “Echo of the Urals” is another fascinating exhibition offering an in-depth look into the customs and history of said subgroup, known as the Finno-Ugric peoples.
According to the description of the “Echo of the Urals” exhibition the Finno-Ugrians are “indigenous peoples without their own statehood who inhabit an immense swath of land from Scandinavia in the northern part of Eurasia and the Baltic Sea to the Taymyr Peninsula and Yenisei River in Siberia.” Since ERM has one of the more comprehensive collections of Finno-Ugric artefacts and folklore, the impressively extensive exhibition offers a fascinating overview of the customs and histories of this rarely mentioned group of people.
You’ll get a chance to visit a Komi hut, an Udmurtian shed, a Khanty forest camp, a Sami house and a Karelian sauna. And right next to the sauna you’ll see a small make-believe grave and a ghostly visage of a woman in mourning as she wails an eerie lamentation. Fun times at the sauna, right?!
4. Get your hands dirty
ERM is not one of those old-timey museums you used to visit during your high school field trips, where you had to be quiet as a mouse and touching anything would be punishable by the teacher glaring you to death. That’s so yesterday! Instead, ERM let’s you interact with the local culture and past, therefore making you a part of it and not merely a passerby.
The museum offers a lot of really interesting stuff for you to mess around with. There’s a floppy disc machine that lets you relive the glorious horrors of 90s Estonian pop music. Then there‘s the vowel loud speaker, which you will definitely use to simulate weird sex noises because you have the mindset of a 12-year-old. The end of the “Echo of the Urals” exhibition has a “Fellowship of the Ring” style door puzzle, luckily excluding the horrible tentacled lake monster. And the digitized skeleton of The Lady of Kukruse looks like something out of an episode of CSI!
It’s a museum where even the most restless should find something that strikes their fancy and an absolutely okay place to visit with kids. Just don’t dwell too long on the 90s pop music. Those were dark days best left buried under the sands of time.
5. See more of Estonia
While the museum is definitely a treat, it doesn’t have to be the only goal on your trip to Tartu. Visiting ERM will also be a good chance to strike out from Tallinn and see that there’s more to Estonia than just the touristy old town.
Photo credit: Neil Howard
Once you’re done absorbing the mesmerising amounts of Estonian culture at ERM, you can cool off while having a stroll around Tartu’s gorgeous historical center. The city is considered to be Estonia’s education capital as it is home to our oldest and most esteemed university, so be sure to check out its grandiose classicist main building. Right next to that you’ll find the beautiful Toome Hill, which is considered to be one of the more unique places to visit in Estonia by me, an expert on visitable hills, hillocks and mounds. If this cultural mumbo-jumbo is not your cup of tea, you can always take in the nightlife in Tartu’s many pubs, bars and clubs that are always filled with thirsty students from all corners of the world. Don’t worry, you don’t have to rob a bank the next day – Tartu is considered to be one of the cheapest towns in Europe!
All you need to do to get to this magical land of plenty is to spend 2-2.5 hours either on a train or a bus. Or, if that doesn’t sound fun, you can always book The Spirit of Tartu & Romantic Viljandi daytrip and we’ll take you there ourselves!
Cover photo credit: Liine Toomse