FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Seven highlights from Tallinn

Posted in Estonia, Tallinn by folkestonejack on July 1, 2019

In a country that has the highest number of museums per citizen it is re-assuring to discover that many of them are among the best museums I have encountered anywhere. It is also blessed with some beautiful churches and restaurants serving up some surprising culinary delights. I have picked a few of the highlights from our three day stay in the city.

Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour

The seaplane hangar that houses the Estonian maritime museum was originally constructed in 1916-17 as part of the defensive system to protect St Petersburg, but after Estonia gained independence in 1918 it was used by the Estonian Air Force until the Soviet invasion in 1940. It languished as a military depot during the Soviet occupation, falling into disrepair, until its inspired conversion into a museum in 2012.

The interior of the museum, formerly a seaplane hangar

The sea hangar is an engineering masterpiece that is every bit as awe inspiring as the exhibits it contains – among the first buildings in the world with such large concrete domes unsupported by pillars.

The exhibits are terrific but the presentation is first rate, including some neat tricks to get visitors of all ages to engage. The most impressive of these was a clever set of animations projected onto the submarine Lembit, the museum’s star exhibit. Each animation takes a different aspect of submarine life, though it’s well worth taking a look at the Museum Night animation for their fun take on what the ship would look like with a skeletal crew!

Other engaging exhibits included seaplane flight simulators; remote controlled model boats; an artillery fire simulation; a virtual reality fly-through of the history of the hangars from their construction through to their conversion to a museum; and a somewhat mad but fun immersive yellow sub adventure. The museum ships on the outside were great fun to explore too, including the steam powered ice-breaker Suur Tõll (1914) which has seen service for the Russian empire, Finland, Estonia and the Soviet Union.

The interior of the Estonian submarine Lembit (1936)

Perhaps most importantly, I learnt quite a bit – always a sure sign that a museum is fulfilling its function. I certainly had no idea about the role that the British navy played in the early stages of the war for independence, defending Tallinn and giving the Estonian forces time to organise their navy over the winter of 1918/1919. One of those moments when history could have taken a very different turn.

Estonian History Museum at Maarjamäe Palace

The complex path of Estonian history is not easily explained, but the exhibition ‘My free country’ at the Estonian History Museum in Maarjamäe Palace was quite simply brilliant at breaking this down and presenting it with the help of an impressive array of exhibits.

The Estonian History Museum at Maarjamäe Palace

This is one of those wonderfully engaging museums that keeps you hooked through various ingenious means, rather than burying you under a ton of explanation. The displays ranged from cute little dioramas showing the changes to the palace through time to interactive displays encouraging you to go on a cycle ride through Estonia towns. My favourite, inevitably, would have to be the railway themed pinball machine!

I was struck once again by the bits of history I didn’t know. In some cases this was understandable, such as the tale of British involvement in the Estonian war of independence, with British military aid ranging from uniforms to heavy tanks, which I suspect has now faded from widespread memory outside of Estonia. However, I was taken aback by how little I knew of the history of my own time – had I understood so little of the story played out on our tv screens in the late 80s/early 90s?

In particular, I was fascinated by the story of the remarkable Baltic way demonstration which saw two million people across the Baltic states form a 675.5km human chain stretching from Tallinn to Vilnius. It was good to be reminded of the power that people can exercise in an increasingly uncertain age.

Holy Spirit Church

The old town has a number of wonderful churches, including the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin, the Russian Orthodox church and St. Nicholas’ Church (Niguliste Museum).

My favourite church would have to be the 14th century Holy Spirit Church with its gorgeous 17th century painted clock. The plain white exterior gives no clue to the beautiful wooden decoration inside. A series of panels towards the front of the church remember the British seamen who fell during the First World War, including the crew of the submarine HMS E18 who were lost in the Baltic Sea off Hilumaa on 2nd June 1916.

Museum of Estonian Architecture

The promotional material about Tallinn does a good job of emphasising that the city is a medieval gem, which meant that the remarkable variety of architectural styles on display in the city came as something of a surprise. The Museum of Estonian Architecture is a good place to get your head around this, presenting a decade by decade walkthrough of the changing styles.

The Museum of Estonian Architecture occupies the historical Rotermann Salt Storage building

I loved the wonderful array of architectural models on display on the ground floor as part of the permanent exhibition ‘Space in motion: A century of Estonian architecture’. I spent quite a bit of time poring over the detail and was thoroughly absorbed.

Along with many familiar buildings there were some interesting ideas for the future, such as a striking proposal (2011-13) from Kadarik Tüür architects. This would see the waste products from the Aidu open cast oil shale mine stored through the construction of a series of pyramids of which the tallest would be 130 metres tall.

It’s also worth taking a look in the basement at the exhibition focusing on what architecture is about, based on the approach used to teach architectural students. It was quite good fun and certainly made us think.

Tallinn Town Hall

The Town Hall is only open to visitors in the Summer months, usually from late June or early July until the end of August. It is said to be the oldest surviving town hall in the Baltic and Scandinavian region, but it is also a building that has undergone quite a transformation over 700 years.

Interior of Tallinn Town Hall

The builders of the original Town Hall might have been rather surprised to return in the early 20th century and see the rooms carved up into smaller office spaces, many more windows punched through the walls and a rebuild of the eastern façade in Gothic Revival style. However, the damage caused by a Soviet air raid on 9th March 1944 provided the catalyst for a restoration that would return the building to its former glory.

It doesn’t take too long to wander the restored rooms or explore the attic, but it is well worth taking a look around.

Estonian Open Air Museum

The Estonian Open Air Museum first opened to the public at Rocco al Mare in 1964, collecting and preserving historic buildings from across Estonia and the islands. Today, the museum presents visitors with 74 buildings over a 72 hectare site. These range from the modest conical pole tent from Harju district that started the museum through to the baroque styling of the Sutlepa chapel, one of the oldest wooden buildings in the country.

One of the many charming buildings in the Estonian Open Air Museum

Armed with a map and a list of highlights we set off on a walk through the grounds that took us to most of the buildings, with the occasional encounter with the friendly cats on the site. At one of the farmhouses we found a ginger cat basking in the sun on the balcony of a property whose relaxed demeanour was quite deceptive. The moment we opened the door he took advantage of our appearance to sneak into a property and take up a prime position on a bed. He looked very pleased with his achievement!

Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom

The last of the museums we visited on our visit to Estonia was one of the most thought provoking. The Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom sets out to encourage every visitor to ‘sense the fragility of freedom’ so while it looks at the events of recent history, it has one eye on the future.

To get the most out of a visit it really needs the time to listen and reflect on the brilliantly scripted and thoughtful audio commentary. The commentary was perfectly pitched and not at all judgmental about the decisions people make under an authoritarian regime, challenging the listener to think how they might act in the same position.

Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom

The commentary revealed just a few of the terrible stories from the Soviet occupation that illustrated the slender thread of freedom, from the university student picked up off the streets and deported to the gulags by mistake (instead of another individual with the same name) to the mother who knew she was about to be arrested and gave her 3 month old son to her sister knowing that it was his only chance for survival (she saw him again 28 years later).

The most haunting tale was of the escapee whose last image of Soviet Estonia was a shoreline littered with opened suitcases, abandoned furniture and all the other possessions that people realised they couldn’t take with them. Among them was an old lady, clutching a clock she couldn’t give up and had consequentially been left behind with. Such a terribly sad position to be put in. Such a sad last image of your homeland to take into exile.


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