Collections of cultural property in Estonia from the 17th to 19th century

It may be said that purposeful preservation of cultural property in Estonia had already begun in the 17th century when Swedish authorities issued the first legal acts for the protection of historical monuments. However, the Great Northern War (1700–1721) resulted in another major series of destruction of cultural property. Only very few people looking for their roots in Estonia can find genealogical data from the time before the Great Northern War (on Estonian territory 1700–1710). It is very difficult to go further back in history, mostly for two reasons: on the one hand, the great war and the plague played havoc among the local people and, on the other hand, a lot of printed materials were also destroyed, including church documents which were kept more consistently only during the Swedish era and which are the main sources of genealogical information. The few lucky ones who can find something from earlier times will probably be stopped by the destruction caused by another catastrophe — the Livonian war (1558–1583).

Written historical records were much better preserved after the Great Northern War. Both the quantity and the quality of texts published in the vernacular, i.e. Estonian, increased. The New Testament was published in 1715 and the Bible in 1739. Calendars and handbooks on health and housekeeping also came to be published in Estonian.

Although Baltic Germans developed a deeper interest in the history of their homeland during the second half of the 18th century, collecting and preserving items of cultural value and using such items in historical research became a purposeful activity only in the 19th century. This process was heavily influenced by the University of Tartu (reopened in 1802) where Professor Karl Morgenstern established an art museum in 1803. This is the oldest museum in Estonia which has acquired, by buying and through donations, a highly valuable collection containing old Egyptian artefacts, Greek and Roman ceramics and sculptures, Western European paintings and engravings, coins and gems. The museum is still active. During World War I, the majority of the more valuable items exhibited in the Art Museum of Tartu University were evacuated to Russia and these items still remain illegally in the Kramskoi Fine Arts Museum in Voronezh.

Tartu University Library opened its doors on Toomemägi in 1806. After that date many other museums were established at the university: a museum of geology, a museum of zoology and a museum of history. At the same time, in 1802, the first private museum was established in Tallinn by Town Council Pharmacist Johann Burchard. The museum was called Mon faible (French for ‘My weakness’) and the items originating from it form the most attractive part of the collections of the present History Museum.

Many Baltic-German cultural societies and associations were also engaged in collecting, preserving and studying cultural property. Let us mention two of the biggest and most famous ones: Gelehrte Estnische Gesellschaft (the Learned Estonian Society) was established in Tartu in 1838 and Estländische Literärische Gesellschaft (the Estonian Literary Society) was established in Tallinn in 1842. The latter founded the Provincial Museum, opened to the general public in 1864, which was the predecessor of the present History Museum. In 1863 Baltic Germans established the Society for the Investigation of the History of Narva and later they also set up a museum which became the first local museum in Estonia. Such societies and museums were also founded in other towns.

The first library open to the public, i.e. the first library in the modern sense of the word, was the General Open Library of Estonia, which opened in Tallinn in 1825. In 1883, the Tallinn Town Council appointed Theodor Schiemann as the city archivist and that year is also considered to be the date of establishing the oldest scientifically arranged archives — the Tallinn City Archives.

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