Just beyond Tallinn’s city walls lies a heritage site dedicated to exploring Estonia’s recent, turbulent past. The Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom is the project of the Kistler-Ritso Estonian Foundation. This organisation was created at the end of the 20th century focussed on the future representation of Estonian legacy and culture following some of the darkest periods within the country’s short history, which resulted in mass immigration alongside deportation under both Soviet and Nazi ages of rule. This aim has resulted in the somewhat unique structuring of the site, with domestic tragedy presented simultaneously alongside a narrative of diaspora detailing the lives and futures of those forced to leave their homeland and loved ones for overseas.
Although the heritage site has been open since 2003, in Estonia’s first purpose-built structure for a museum, this present design of the site was newly created and installed in 2018. The modernity of the exhibition is clear, with features including VR headsets and interactive touch-screens present in many of the spaces. This technological upgrade has also extended into communication, which is undeniably a key feature of Vabamu. Visitors are presented with a multi-language audio guide that interacts with individual spaces and features automatically. This interaction is prompted by standing in front of a specific item or screen featuring a speaker; the guide can switch to the new point of interest without the press of a button. Those wondering if this results in congestion with visitors all trying to look and listen at the same point shouldn’t worry, as it is possible to access all recordings from the tablet containing the guide, as well as text information concerning individual items that can be read while listening to the audio passages. With some segments of the guide lasting up to twenty minutes for a single space, visitors can sit within the rooms and simply listen to the explanation of the intricate histories represented around them, or get up and explore the featured content of the museum while being told of its significance – simply put, this site is definitely not one that can be rushed.
Vabamu, meaning ‘free house’ in Estonian, has a single, grand permanent exhibition that encompasses the vast majority of the site. ‘Freedom Without Borders’ details life in Estonia from the first instance of occupation during the Second World War up until the present day. Divided into five different sections, the exhibition opens with visitors being introduced to the narratives of individuals who lived through the decades of conflict and occupation; the museum exists solely due to the willingness of individuals such as these to share their experiences, a factor that is praised throughout the exhibition. An immediate change occurs from the relative openness of the welcoming hall in the next space, with the sudden shift to being ‘held’ in a room designed to replicate one of the many wagons used to transport individuals to camps by both the Nazi and Soviet authorities during the almost overlapping periods of military occupation by both forces during the Second World War. Items crafted by Jewish individuals when being held in concentration camps are displayed alongside arrest warrants for some of Estonia’s most prominent political figures from the previous years of independent rule: no one was safe from the imposing global powers surrounding the nation, a notion that can definitely be felt when contained within the wagon’s narrow walls.
The next space of the exhibition explores life in exile, something that many Estonians were forced into following the post-war occupation of the nation by the Soviet Union. With the threat of arrest or imprisonment in Siberia a real possibility for many within the nation, families often fled under the cover of darkness in tiny rowing boats with only a suitcase full of belongings to Scandinavia, with many going from there to Western Europe, North America and even Oceania. Living overseas gave these people their individual freedom, but many still felt emotionally entwined with hardships still being endured within the fatherland. Within these isolated spheres, the future was never a certainty. A cabinet in the corner of the room holds items from donors, each with their own story to tell. After the death of their Estonian mother in Sweden long after the end of the occupation, her family found a fully-packed suitcase hidden in the wardrobe; she was always prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, as she had done all those years ago. Another person kept a small Estonian flag on their desk in Australia, keeping it at half-mast until the day that national sovereignty was declared in 1988. These were small symbols, but greatly accentuate just how connected people felt with their home, even if they were thousands of miles away. This section of the museum is dominated by a rowing boat in the centre of the space, akin to those used by the fleeing refugees – the individual items and markers of nationhood that surround the room are all drawn together by this boat, accentuating the desire and fear warranted to take the action to leave the only home many had ever known.
Of course, many remained in Estonia during the years of Soviet rule, which is explored in the next section of the exhibition. The ideology of Soviet life is explored first, with images of propaganda adorning the walls of a room solely containing a red star, and a portrait of Joseph Stalin projected onto the ceiling. The symbolism of the impact of Soviet thought within occupied Estonia is highly apparent; while not everyone would have been directly under the gaze of the authorities, no one could ever truly be free of the occupying forces. The adjoining room takes the visitor into the idealistic Soviet home within a ‘Khrushchyovka’-style block of flats. A VR feature allows for the visitor to design their own 70s Soviet interior, while the radio in the kitchen can be tested to see if a Western station’s airwaves can occasionally be found. This section of the exhibition contains the least amount of additional guidance from the guide; after the deeply impactful histories and narratives presented so far within the museum, it could be seen that this element of the site provides the visitor with some respite from the darkest facts of the time, while still highlighting a key facet of life for Estonians living under the age of occupation.
Following a ride in an elevator playing the very un-elevator music-like punk anthem Tere Perestroika, the exhibition moves away from a tragic reminiscing of the past, shifting towards Estonia’s journey to independence. Testimonies from individuals who lived and noticeably grew up during the years of change help to cement the true importance of the age, ranging from the humorous discussion concerning the impact of the Estonian punk movement on the development of ‘perestroika’ to the more serious exploration concerning just how the sudden freedoms impacted individuals who had been hidden behind the Iron Curtain for the entirety of their lifetimes. Discussion relating to structures of government provides an interactive element to this section of the exhibition, with visitors able to explore how their opinions on how a new government should be formed actually align with what Estonia chose to do when returning to self-governance.
The final section of the exhibition discusses the notion of freedom now present within Estonia. Individuals from across the country present their beliefs relating to how their lives have been shaped by the nation’s past, and how this will go on to affect their future. The space is dominated by a large installation of a see-saw with two figures helping to create an event balance – these figures represent Estonia’s freedoms and its responsibilities, with the need to keep these two concepts in parallel for the successful continuation of the country in the modern day clearly apparent. This optimistic notion acts as the final message of the exhibition, leaving visitors with an increased awareness of how Estonia’s recent past is still noticeably impacting upon the country’s present-day ethos and identity.
Despite the vast, encompassing nature of the main exhibition, Vabamu also displays a rotating temporary exhibition that follows on from the primary content. Currently, the museum is presenting ‘Our Story’, in relation to the site’s grand re-design. As well as highlighting the locations recent new developments, the history of the governing foundation is also discussed, with a large focus placed onto the story of Olga Kistler-Ritso, a figure who lived under the shadow of dominating regimes for the majority of her life, and who sought to create a space for the Estonian narrative of this age to be freely shared. The exhibition also features a refreshing explanation regarding how museums work to curate items for display, discussing the donation process of items alongside how such contributions can best be represented in the available spaces. Such information usually hidden away from public understanding exemplifies the museum’s primary aim of educating their visitors not only of the discussed historical period, but also of how the site developed from a wish into a reality.
Vabamu succeeds in bringing a breath of fresh air to Tallinn’s heritage scene, while also not trivialising events still fresh in the minds of most residing in the city. Though the site is not housed in surroundings that add historical significance to the information inside, the museum does not lack in providing both educational and emotional content to those willing to expand their understanding of the age. Vabamu’s relationship with the new KGB Prison Cells located in the centre of Tallinn on the iconic Pikk does however combine the informative content of the museum with that of a setting that would have been familiar to some of the individuals discussed in the heritage location. Governed by the same foundation, a visit to both Vabamu and the Prison Cells is a definite must for anyone wishing to learn more about life behind the Iron Curtain in Estonia.
Vabamu website: https://www.vabamu.ee/
KGB Prison Cells website: https://www.vabamu.ee/kgb-prison-cells
The websites are best most direct way of finding out useful information, including opening times and ticket prices. The combined ticket for both sites is the most cost-effective way to explore both locations, while students with an ISIC card can also benefit from a handy discount.
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Heather is a postgraduate student currently studying Public History in the UK – she hopes to make her mark in the world of heritage very soon!