Estonian national collections of cultural property from the 19th to 20th century

The Estonian National Awakening during the second half of the 19th century was, among other things, a great incentive to start collecting intellectual and cultural heritage connected with the Estonian nation. Following the example of the Baltic-German societies, many Estonian societies were also established: the Estonian Society of the Men of Letters (est. in 1871), the Estonian Students’ Society (1883) and after that the Society for Estonian Literature (1907) and the Estonian National Museum (1909). Gathering and studying Estonian texts and artefacts were included among their goals. While during older times the majority of texts to be preserved had been in foreign languages, this was the time when the Estonian language started to gain more prominence in this respect.

In the 19th century, the most influential person in the process of collecting the national heritage was Jakob Hurt, who in 1888 published a call in Estonian newspapers to launch a campaign for the collection of folklore. Hundreds of people contributed to the 170-volume collection, which contained altogether 261 589 items of folklore, including approximately 50 000 folk songs. Hurt’s example was later followed by many other heritage collectors, e.g. Matthias Johann Eisen (1857–1934), teacher and archaeologist Jaan Jung (1835–1900) and Oskar Kallas (1868–1946) who was the initiator of the collecting of folk songs. The collecting of folklore, started by Jakob Hurt, has continued until the present day, endowing the Estonian Folklore Archives in Tartu with one of the largest collections of folklore in the world.

However, the national cultural heritage began to be gathered, preserved and used in a widespread and co-ordinated manner only after Estonia had become an independent state. During the 1920s and 1930s, the management of archives, libraries and museums formed a significant part of the cultural policy of the Republic of Estonia, laying the foundations for the Estonian archives, libraries and museums existing today.

In 1919, the year-old department of the Estonian National Museum in Tallinn became an independent unit — the Estonian Museum. In recognition of the museum’s specialisation, it was renamed the Art Museum of Estonia in 1928. In 1921, the State Archives were established in order to gather the documentation of state agencies of the republic in one place. In 1924 the director of the State Archives was given the task of running the State Library (established in 1918), which had evolved from the libraries of the State Chancellery and the Country Council. In 1921, the Central State Archives were established in Tartu, their function being the gathering of all the records from the pre-independence era. In 1926, the historical archives of the War of Independence and the Vital Statistics Archives were established.

In 1929, the Estonian Cultural History Archives were established at the Estonian National Museum in Tartu in order to create a collection of documents and photos connected with persons and organisations that had been significant in Estonian cultural history. In 1934, the Music Museum was opened to the general public and, in 1943, a theatre department was added to it. In 1937, the Tallinn City Museum was separated from the Tallinn City Archives; for a while they did, however, remain under common management. In 1935, the Estonian Postal Museum was founded under the guidance of the famous postal historian Julius Blyer (1901–1980).

World War II and half a century of Soviet occupation resulted in irrecoverable losses for Estonian archives, libraries and museums: a lot of cultural property was lost or destroyed during the war or taken out of the country by invaders. All the items in the archives, museums and libraries that were not ideologically suitable to the Soviet power were locked up in special archives not accessible to the general public. A large number of books, works of art, photos, manuscripts and other documents from the ‘bourgeois’ era, stored in the archives, libraries and museums, were simply destroyed.

A big part of the cultural property taken out of Estonia during the Soviet occupation is still kept in Russia illegally. In 1951, the collections of the Estonian Postal Museum, including a very valuable collection of stamps, were taken to Leningrad and are now being kept in the A. S. Popov Central Museum of Communications in St. Petersburg. The Collar of the Order of the National Coat of Arms — a symbol of office of the President of the Republic of Estonia — which is a unique work of art forged from gold and encrusted with gems and which, according to the Decorations Act, is handed from president to president, is being kept in the Kremlin Armoury Chamber (Oruzheinaya Palata). During the occupation, thousands of archive files were removed from Estonia to be kept in various depositories in Russia.

The occupation power did not, however, gain control of the archives that Estonian expatriates had created elsewhere in the world. Although these collections are called archives, they are really an interesting mixture of archives, libraries and museums, housing archive documents, films, photos, sound recordings, printed texts, works of art and other artefacts connected with Estonia. The oldest and most extensive archive abroad is the Estonian Archives in Australia established in 1952. From 1953 to 1990, these archives were run by Hugo Salasoo, Dr. Pharm., and nowadays the archives are often referred to by his name. Two Estonian archives were established in Toronto, Canada: the Estonian Central Archives of Canada (1961) and the Archives of Tartu Institute (1971).

In 1966 the Baltic Archives were created in Stockholm with Kalju Lepik, a famous Estonian poet, being the director until his death. In 1969, Ferdinand Kool established the Estonian Archives in the United States in Lakewood, on the basis of materials relating to Estonians which were collected in displaced persons camps. Since Estonia regained its independence, a lot of cultural property stored and created in exile has been brought back to Estonia.

The regaining of independence in Estonia has largely been based on the retrospective information stored in archives, libraries and museums: this helped to increase the national awareness and spread the idea of restoring independence. The information also helped to fill the gaps in Estonian history created during the Soviet occupation. Documents archived by the repressive Soviet control bodies (the KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs) made it possible to rehabilitate those who had been repressed.

Archive documents were used as proof in the process of returning the property confiscated by the Soviet power to former owners or their successors and also as a basis for awarding Estonian citizenship. In connection with various reforms carried out in Estonia, approximately half a million archival notices have been issued, i.e. approximately one per every two Estonian citizens, and a vast number of copies of archived documents have been made. After independence was regained, many national and other institutions started looking for archive documents regarding the activities of particular institutions between 1918 and 1940. When such documents did exist, they saved everybody a lot of trouble.

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