Scientific collections and their founders

Most of the scientific collections which were set up in the 19th century can still be enjoyed in their historical environment by visitors and used by scientists.

The University library was established in 1802. The director of the library, as well as the founder of the art museum of the university in 1803, was Johann Karl Simon Morgenstern (1770-1852).

A botanic garden was founded in Tartu as early as 1803, a mineralogy cabinet in 1820 and a zoology cabinet in 1822. Much of the material was gathered by exchange and donations. The participation of scholars and explorers of Baltic origin from Tartu University in expeditions organised by the Russian authorities was a constant source of additions to Tartu University collections. A remarkable contribution to the development of science was made by the explorer Adam Johann von Krusenstern (1770-1846) and zoogeographer Alexander Theodor von Middendorff (1815-1894).

Their contribution to the mapping and description of the world’s oceans (The Atlas of the Southern Seas, Vol I in 1832, Vol II in 1826 by Krusenstern) and works concerning the exploration of Siberia by Middendorff, which were some of the first ecological-geographical studies in the world, are of interest even today. From 1802 to 1865, the scholars of Tartu University participated in at least 117 scientific expeditions to different regions of Russia, contributing mainly to the exploration of the northern territories of Russia.

Those collections were necessary for the science at that stage of development because much scientific work involved merely description and the systematisation derived therefrom. Among eminent scientists in Tartu in that regard were plant systematists Carl Christian Friedrich von Ledebour (1785–1851) and Alexander Georg von Bunge (1803–1890), as well as zoologist Johann Friedrich Eschscholz (1793–1831), who accompanied Otto von Kotzebue (1787–1846), also a Russian explorer of Baltic origin, on two voyages around the world. These voyages resulted in the description of many new types of flora and fauna. Regrettably, most of the research of the paleozoologist Hermann Martin Asmuss (1812-1859), the first researcher of Devon Placodermi, remained on the shelf.

Interesting collections were created by medical scientists in the old anatomical theatre. Collections of anatomy, pathology, anthropology and others often served as models for starting similar collections elsewhere.

Scientific collections became an important resource for introducing Estonia to the rest of the world – the southern Estonian old red sandstone base is one of the main deposits of Devon fossils in the world. Later, in the 20th century, the Estonian limestone strata were discovered for palaeontology.

Natural scientists and geologists created a rich collection of meteorites and an archaeological collection. An archaeology museum was established at the University in 1843. It became possible thanks to the archaeological expeditions to the Baltic provinces organised by Professor Friedrich Karl Hermann Kruse (1790-1866).

The university was not alone in this work. The academic societies which had been established in various towns saw the need to set up collections mainly with a view to preserving local antiquities. In 1864, the Provincial Museum of Estonia was established in Tallinn, the predecessor of the present Estonian History Museum. The Society of Antiquity Researchers in Pärnu is to be thanked for the valuable collections of the archaeology of the Stone Age.

In 1909, the foundation was laid for the Estonian National Museum and, thereby, antiquities as a fundamental aspect of the self-definition of the Estonian nation were perpetuated. This process had already begun with influences from some scientific and educational associations established by non-Estonians. Estonian-born pastor, Jakob Hurt (1839-1907), with the help of his closest co-workers, took the initiative in that field of science, publishing two collections of folk songs (Old Zither) in the years 1875-1886.

The invocation by Jakob Hurt in 1888 to preserve everything ancient (‘Some Requests to the Brighter Sons and Daughters of Estonia’) fell on fertile and prepared ground. The collecting campaign involved the active participation of nationally-minded students, as well as of amateur scientists. There were not a few who later won recognition as the first scientists of Estonian origin to have contributed to their respective fields, for example in archaeology, Jaan Jung (1835-1900), a schoolmaster in Abja.

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