VISIT | Narrating the nation: A visit to the Estonian National Museum

By Alex Hardy

It would be fair to say nationalism has become a contentious topic of late. Between the election of Donald Trump and the UK’s Brexit vote, we are also faced with upcoming Dutch and French General elections featuring hard right nationalists in the form of Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen. A resurgent and emboldened Russia strikes a fearful chord with many in the Baltic region in particular. Nationalist patriotism was harnessed as rationale for the annexation of the Crimea, under the auspices of coming to aid a threatened diaspora of Russian speakers. Estonia, along with neighbouring Latvia, both contain a sizeable Russian speaking population, and were both of course once part of the USSR. A visit to the ‘Soviet’ market the previous day in Tallinn had led me to stumble upon t-shirts adorned with a shirtless Vladimir Putin riding a bear and, perhaps as interestingly, posters of Donald Trump among the various Soviet era badges and memorabilia. Unfortunately the stalls owners spoke only Russian, but I suspect given the choice of goods, there was little doubt as to their political affiliations.


The impressive entrance to the Estonian National Museum (authors own image)

My research thus led me to Tartu, Estonia’s second city, where I spent some time at the University. With free time later in the afternoon I had my sights firmly upon the newly opened National Museum, which recently featured in the Guardian. A project ten years in the making by the Estonian Government, it was recently completed, and is based on the edge of the city. Museums are interesting geopolitical sites. Of course, upon simple interpretation, they display objects of the past, allowing visitors a glimpse of what life looked like over differing periods of time. A visit to the British Museum, London, showcases artefacts from all over the globe, with equal, if not more attention often paid to Egyptian, Roman and Greek exhibits as those native to the United Kingdom. The prospect of a ‘National’ museum then was intriguing, particularly as I sought to further understand this small Baltic state.  There are two main, permanent displays within this huge site, built on the runway of a former Soviet Airbase. ‘Encounters’ features an Estonian cultural history of everyday life, whilst ‘Echo of the Urals’ is dedicated to the Finno-Ugric peoples. Roughly explained, Finno-Ugric peoples share a similar linguistic heritage, thus are often considered to have a common cultural background, often drawn from the Baltic / Nordic region. It has been noted that is one of the reasons Estonians have often sought to emphasise their Nordic and European credentials (Berg, 2002). This Nordic identity conflicts strongly with the past Soviet legacies, and an Estonian desire to separate and disassociate themselves from it.

I opted for the Echo of the Urals first, and entered to an impressive interactive display on the wall to the right, demonstrating the similarities amongst all Finno-Ugric languages, allowing users to press a button which then demonstrated each word, how it was pronounced in said dialect and where this dialect originated. This then led on to further displays of traditional Finno-Ugric dress and lifestyle, supplemented with ornaments and interactive displays showcasing traditional ways of life, dating back to pre-Christian Pagan traditions. This exhibit was clearly designed to showcase a great deal of pride in this heritage through common language and historic, cultural norms, including a connection with nature and the outdoors. The importance of language is of course highlighted by Judith Butlers work in ‘performativity’ which went to great lengths to highlight how language and performed, mundane, daily activities can be heavily linked to notions of identity (Butler, 1988). Further displays noted the importance of preserving such languages, whilst also commenting on how many Finno-Ugric languages were under threat, particularly within Russia. The mention of Estonias larger neighbour was rarely positive throughout, condemning the attempted ‘Russofication’ of Estonia through resettlement of Russian speakers during the Soviet period. This display of ethno-nationalism left me with some food for thought. On one hand, I was deeply appreciative that Estonia is a small nation with a troubled past, and aware of some of the terrible oppression of Estonian language and culture during Soviet occupation. On the other hand, the idea of ethno-nationalism sat rather uncomfortably, and I wondered how such ideas could and have been adopted in other scenarios.


Mapping Finno-Ugric. Not visible in the image is Hungarian, also a Finno-Ugric language, sharing a common heritage with the Finnish and Estonians (authors own image)

With plenty to ponder, I moved on to the second display, Encounters, a celebration of everyday Estonian cultural history. It was fittingly equipped with innovative technology, as I have perhaps come to expect from a nation dubbed a digital tiger economy. Perhaps my favourite part being a wall structure, representing the iron curtain, which when you walked past, a spotlight shone on and followed you for around ten yards. Similar novelties made the exhibition genuinely fun and interactive, whilst displaying some of the highs and lows of Estonian history. There was pride in historic flags, which were banned during the Soviet period, and examples of Estonian technology and innovators in the independent era. The choice of both of these permanent exhibits led me to consider the work of Homi Bhabha’s narration of the nation (the inspiration of the title of this piece). He would, I imagine, have found such displays “hopelessly romantic” and “excessively metaphorical” (1999: 3) yet I could not help warm to such displays. They celebrated achievement, inclusivity and fundamentally a freedom which was not there during the years of occupation. I also think, on a fundamental level, part of me simply always wants to root for the underdog or ‘little guy’, which Estonia undoubtedly was during its battle for independence, and still is on the global stage. Finally, there was a section displaying items from the occupation. Mundane items such as boxes of matches marked with communist insignia and food packaging, from a time when Estonians had little, mixed with more overtly nationalist soviet flags and military uniforms. The former objects, whilst seemingly everyday, clearly held meaning, and a wider political symbolism. Reminders of a time important to remember, yet celebrate it was no longer a reality. All the pieces really do matter, even the seemingly banal ones (Meehan et al, 2013). Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. Whilst I remain sceptical of the concept of ethno-nationalism in particular, the Estonian National Museum was a thought-provoking and informative glimpse into the history of a nation. Surely such is the purpose of any good national museum.

Alex Hardy is a Royal Leverhulme funded PhD Research Student, interested in the everyday politics of cyber security. Having previously studied International Relations and Human Geography research at Durham and Newcastle University respectively, his research interests include critical geopolitics, security studies and the digital economy.


Everyday objects of another era (authors own image)



Bhabha, H.K. ed., 1999. Nation and narration. Routledge.

Butler, J., 1988. Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. Theatre journal, 40(4), pp.519-531.

Berg, E., 2002. Local resistance, national identity and global swings in post-Soviet Estonia. Europe-Asia Studies, 54(1), pp.109-122.

Meehan, K., Shaw, I.G.R. and Marston, S.A., 2013. Political geographies of the object. Political Geography, 33, pp.1-10.


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