Archive version
This is an archived version of webpage (2006–2017).

Estonian Museum Association

Muuseumi tee 2, Tartu, tel 735 0412


 In English / Professional development / Contemporary museum / Educational policy


It was on the initiative of the Baltic-German intellectuals that Estonians realized the necessity to collect and preserve the cultural treasures. The foundation of museums and educational work at them has been connected with the beginning of local lore studies and the foundation of educational-purpose museums (Art Museum of Tartu University in 1803) and study rooms (related to the teaching of natural sciences) at the University of Tartu. Also, school museums have played a remarkable role throughout ages. The first ones were established already in the 1840s, and among them the museums working at Paide, Rakvere, Haapsalu and Kuressaare county schools survived the longest. A considerable part of their museals constituted the original stock for the would-be local museums and have been preserved until the present time. In the 1960s there occurred another surge: objects were collected at many urban and country schools and new school museums and thematic rooms were set up, for example, rooms dedicated to battle glory. At school museums much was done by the pupils themselves – this was meant to render local history important for them.

In the middle of the 19th century, side by side with the national awakening movement, the first collections of national treasures founded by Estonian intellectuals started to crop up at societies. However, it was only in 1909 that our own museum – the Estonian National Museum – was founded. After Estonia had gained independence in 1918, significant changes were also started in the work of museums. In 1919, in order to co-ordinate the work concerning museums and national heritage, the board of national heritage was established at the department of science and arts of the Ministry of Education, which organized days and weeks for national heritage collection among schoolchildren for several years. Most of the museums were supported by societies, associations or foundations. The first generation of Estonian museum workers was formed. At this time several home and private museums were founded by local lore and history societies.

The 1940s were hard for museums. The occupation powers took many cultural treasures out of Estonia or they were evacuated. Several museum buildings were demolished in the war. Many of the museums had lost their former professional staff due to expatriation or deportation. The 1950s were recovering years - several museums had to get used to their new buildings, arrange their collections and reopen exhibitions. Yet the educational work at museums, for which even a separate department had been established – the department for mass work – was carried on under strong ideological pressure. In the 1960s the political atmosphere became a little more relaxed again.

The democratization that had started in Estonian society in the late 1980s also manifested itself in the work of museums. The movement for the protection of national heritage comprised several museums. Their former names were re-established, for example, the State Ethnographic Museum of the ESSR became the Estonian National Museum. The number of museum visitors, including those from abroad, increased considerably, and museums started active cooperation with the public, participating in fairs, promoting their undertakings, organizing information days. Work with the audience, especially children and young people, was highlighted. Museum workers were united into a professional society – in 1988 the Estonian Museum Society was founded, which at present has a membership of 300. Free society enabled self-improvement, contacts were established with the colleagues from other countries, and mutual visits were organized in order to gain working experience. In 1992 the Estonian National Committee of the ICOM was founded, which brought about constant contacts with the colleagues from other countries. From the year 1995 the magazine called Museum started to be published. This can be called the beginning of the educational era in Estonian museums. One of the first museums to look for new directions in educational work was the Estonian Open Air Museum: in 1994 the position of a museum educator was set up, a separate museum was founded for children, and modern working methods are continuously taken into use and new fields of activities are opened (e.g., the children’s museum).

In 1997 an important meeting of the educational side and museums took place at the information day of the Estonian Open Air Museum under the heading “Relations between Museum and School”, which emphasised that the museum is an inseparable part of education. Also, it was discussed how to put these things into practice and which co-operation forms are the most efficient to apply. A year later the discussions were continued at an educational seminar in Tallinn, dealing with the topics “Museum Guide or Guide at a Museum”, “Is it Possible to Speak about Museum Education in Estonia?”, “What does School Expect from Museums?”, “Principles of Museum Education and Co-operation with Russian-Language Schools”. In 2001 the Finnish Institute in collaboration with the Estonian Museum Society and the Estonian National Museum organized a three-months’ seminar in Tartu under the heading “Finnish Museums in Estonia”, where one of the topics discussed was museum educational activities in Finland. Pedagogical training has been frequent also during recent years: lectures delivered in Tallinn and Tartu, days of didactics and mutual visits introducing the educational programmes of respective museums.

In about two hundred and fifty Estonian museums there are about twenty full-time museum educators, who mostly work at central, county and city museums. However, all museums have realized the importance of this work. Often, mainly at smaller museums, this work is done by people apart from their full-time jobs. In Estonian museums people are educated through excursions, museum classes, study materials, performances and role plays. Organizing museum visits instead of subject classes at school has become one of the best developed cooperation models between schools and museums. Several museums have become quite skilful in classifying their educational activities: from among the general cultural-educational museum activities the possibilities supporting the state curriculum have also been elicited. Museum educators deal with visitors at exhibitions, but also in special rooms such as workshops, studios or children’s museums. Museums’ flexibility in the work with their visitors is absolutely essential. So, for example, a wish expressed by one of the visitors of the Estonian National Museum four years ago to celebrate his son’s birthday at the museum has turned into one of the most popular services rendered here. The programme “Birthday at the Museum” is meant, above all, for 6-13-year-old children. Children are offered the possibility to spend three hours at the museum and they can choose between four different programmes. The main aim is to get acquainted with the museum, but also to play together and have a good time.

The state integration programme is a relatively new phenomenon at Estonian museums, but on the world level a similar experience exists in the form of an immigrant integration programme. In the year 2002 fourteen sets of study materials were prepared for non-native schoolchildren by different museums; these materials can be used either at museums, in school classes or for independent studying, and they comprise board games, electronic interactive worksheets, songbooks on CDs, study films, workbooks.

Several museums have developed co-operation projects with the museums in other countries. For example, the Tallinn City Museum has worked out a joint project for schoolchildren together with the city museums of St. Petersburg, Stockholm and Helsinki, which is connected with Eric Sederholm who lived in all these cities.

Art education in art museums deserves special attention. A children and youth centre called Siksak (Zigzag) works at the Estonian Art Museum and there are several workshops at the museum subsidiaries. All of them have elaborated workbooks. The museum has trained volunteers who work with children, - mostly students of the Tallinn Pedagogical University, who help to put educational programmes into practice. In addition to ordinary working forms, such as excursions and museum classes, they offer possibilities to visit open artists’ studios-workshops and to meet with artists. A novel approach is offered by the project “Strategies of Visual Thinking”, which is based on the method of Abigail Housen, a cognitive psychologist from the USA. This is a joint venture of the museum and art teachers, introducing children to both the world and Estonian art. Teaching is carried out at school (watching slides) and at the museum (original works of art). At the Tartu Art Museum there works a study room which organizes classes and other undertakings meant for the general public. The museum is in close co-operation with schoolteachers and the educational activities are well differentiated between stages: there are separate events for elementary school, basic school and gymnasium, which are organized on the basis of a methodology suitable for these particular age groups. All the educational programmes at the Tartu Art Museum are free of charge for schoolchildren.

From among the county museums, Hiiumaa and Harjumaa museums have been the most successful in their work with schoolchildren. Both have close contacts with local schools and their educational work follows the curriculum: the programmes offered are designed for different age groups at school. In Hiiumaaa a museum visiting contest was started for teachers in the year 2000. In order to improve co-operation, for example, a round table for teachers was organized.

Small museums have also organized interesting events, first and foremost rendering importance to the connections with people’s home neighbourhood.

Several county and city museums offer educational activities for the schoolchildren of their own region free of charge.

People engaged in educational work are autodidacts who often lack methodological materials. Cooperation with the educational side presents a problem: how to make museum visits part of the educational system? The things the museum educators miss most are museum didactics, methodology of expositions, communication psychology and other communication theories. Also no regular visitor research has been conducted.

Virve Tuubel
Guide-Educationist, MA
Estonian National Museum
Board Member of the Estonian Museum Society
Tel 7 421 311; 56 20 49 79