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Estonian Museum Association

Muuseumi tee 2, Tartu, tel 735 0412


 In English / History / Estonian museum history / Estonian museum history

Estonian museum tradition began with an egg. The first item which started up the collection of rarities belonging to town-hall chemist Johann Burchardt VII in 1802 was an egg. Burchardt’s collection of curios, called Mon Faible (French: my weakness) became the first private museum in Estonia. Mon Faible was a private collection; whereas the natural history study (Naturalienkabinet) belonging to the composition of Tartu University which was reopened in 1802 and the University’s art museum established in 1803 were the first public museums in Estonia. Tartu University started Estonian contemporary museum tradition in the 1st half of the 19th century.

Interest towards local cultural heritage was a precondition for the establishment of museums in the 19th century. On the initiative of Baltic-German intellectual fellowships museums were established, which became the forerunners of present-day history and natural history museums and several local museums.

An important development in local traditional culture started with the new century, when Estonian National Museum was established in 1909 for the keeping of Estonian culture. The museum started to collect ethnographic subject-matter, folklore and publications on Estonian culture. Initiated by Kristjan Raud, Estonian Museum was established in 1919, which was changed into Estonian Art Museum in 1928. The establishment of museums gained ground in the period 1920 – 1930, when mainly local lore and special museums dedicated to a particular field or the study of the history of one town were established (Estonian Maritime Museum, Estonian Post Museum, Estonian Health Care Museum, Tallinn City Museum etc.).

After the establishment of the Soviet power some of the museums were nationalised and some were closed down. In the Soviet period a state-controlled museum system was introduced and a systematic museum network including national and regional museums was established. Museums became powerful ideological and cultural weapons. Many memorial museums of local cultural figures like Lydia Koidula, Eduard Vilde, Ants Laikmaa, Anton Hansen Tammsaare, Rudolf Tobias etc. were established. Many new types of museums were also established – the largest one being Estonian Open Air Museum which was opened in 1957 as the first open air museum of the former Soviet Union.

From the restoration of the Republic of Estonia some museums have been liquidated due to political reasons, some have ceased to exist due to privatisation. Each county has its own central museum which supervises and manages the museum life in own county. New museums have also been established. Museum of the Bank of Estonia, Museum of Estonian Architecture, Mikkel Museum, Kohtla Mining Park-Museum and a number of local lore museums were all established in the 1990’ies.

The beginning of the 21st century witnessed the birth of Estonian museum architecture. The construction of Museum of Occupations will be completed in 2003. The new building of the Art Museum of Estonia opened in Kadriorg in 2006.

Estonia is rich in museums. We have 30 state-owned museums at the moment – 12 central, 3 state and 15 local museums in each county of Estonia. There are also town museums, university museums and private museums belonging to institutions and agencies. The total number of Estonian museums is app. 250.