Monday, 7 May 2012

Guest post: "Me, you and the others", by Eva-Kaia Vabamäe (Estonia)

I met Eva-Kaia Vabamäe during a training course last September. A few days ago, she surprised me with a text she wrote, inspired by a recent post of mine, on the challenges faced by estonian museums when presenting the history of their 20-year-old country. I asked for permission to re-publish her text. This made me think that there are always so many realities we don´t know about, so in the next few weeks there will be more texts from Spain, Brazil, Egypt, Ukraine, the USA and Nigeria. And I hope more will follow. mv

Model of the National Museum of Estonia´s new building (image taken from the website - New European Architecture)
Maria Vlachou, a Greek museologist who currently lives and works in Portugal, raises the topic of telling stories in the museum context in her blog Musing on Culture. She focuses primarily on how one story can sound totally different depending on the nation that is telling it (for example the never-ending conflict between neighbouring countries Greece and Turkey). This reminded me of the important role museums play when it comes to rethinking and explaining history to the public.

Coming from a tiny (although, of course, huge in spirit) country like Estonia, with a population of less than 1,5 million, we are used to imagining that we are in opposition with other nations. It’s been a survival strategy through various occupation periods, when the oppressors tried to absorb us into other, bigger, nations. Our history mostly consists of battles for our identity; battles for the opportunity to have our own republic and our own culture. Of course, that means that there has often been someone else to be opposed to, someone who has won the game by just being heavier. Therefore, success stories in Estonian history usually consist of tales about a nation that is clever as a fox, incredibly persistent and wins the fight with incredibly simple tricks (who would believe that a nation can sing itself free, but yet it’s a true story). As US anthropologist Paul Firnhaber pointed out in the Estonian NationalMuseum’s latest museums masterclass, we’ve only had one military hero, Lembitu, who lived in the 1200s and didn’t actually accomplish much.

When this background is taken into account, it is in fact not a great wonder that usually we just tell stories from our own, Estonian, point of view. We’ve only been independent again for a bit more than 20 years and before that it was the Soviet occupation, known for its habit of rewriting history to suit political ambitions. Obviously then, the historians have had their hands full with setting things right and there’s still a lot to re-evaluate. But how often do we think about how other nations have seen the same events? What would the stories of our ethnic minorities be like? What would the stories of our neighbours be like or how did it all look like on the other side of the ocean? We are only beginning to tell these stories and it will be a great challenge for a tiny nation that has mainly been fighting for its own survival.

Volunteers gathering on the pathway to Raadi Manor to clean the territory. Raadi is a place that could tell very controversial stories. Among fields and meadows, it became a Baltic German manor in the 19th century; then the Estonian National Museum’s first exhibition hall in the 1920s; then a Soviet military airfield during the cold war; and finally, in the 2000s, the area designated for the ENM building, the construction of the main building is to begin shortly. (Photo: courtesy of NME).

Like Maria Vlachou also writes, people used to turning to museums to find the “truth”. Museums have the authority to decide what and how will be displayed. This places a huge amount of responsibility on the shoulders of museum specialists, because, as I am sure each and every one of us has noticed,  there’s rarely only one ‘right’, objective, view on world history. Current museology already tells us that museums shouldn’t be the dictators of truth, but offer a variety of different narratives.  More simply put, this theory is similar to the proverb that says: “Don’t give the hungry man a fish, but a fish hook”, which means that the museum must trust its visitor enough to let him, based on these different narratives, decide for himself.

The Department of Ethnic Cultures of the National Museum of Estonia is currently helping Valga Museum with developing an inclusive exhibition project with and about the local Roma community. The start has been quite rocky, especially on the ‘inclusion’ side. We’ve had to do a lot of explaining that we’re not making any money with this project, because the Roma community has had negative experiences with former projects, when they’ve felt that they’d only been used for statistics and no real input was expected of them.

As part of the preparation process, my colleague and I attended a seminar last week. It was a seminar for teachers and a Roma woman, who runs the local cultural Roma NGO, was asked to speak about their culture. This time, like before, she again asked the question: “Why now? Nobody cared about us for hundreds of years, why now?”. I think it’s because we’re finally ready to tell more stories than just our own. And based on the question that one participant (let me remind you that they were teachers!) asked: “Why should I respect you, when I know nothing about you?”, I’d say it’s more than necessary to start telling them!

[Text originally published in the Eesti Rahva Muuseumi blog (National Museum of Estonia)]

Eva-Kaia Vabamäe currently works for the National Museum of Estonia (NME) in the Department of Ethnic Cultures. Her job is to assist different types of museums in the fields of museum education, exhibitions and communication strategies. This includes organizing workshops and courses, but also working in a variety of other museum development projects. Current projects include developing a community-inclusive exhibition hall for the NME´s new building, creating a summer programme on ethnic cultures for children, creating workshops for museum educators, the above-mentioned exhibition about the Roma community, etc. Born and raised in Estonia, she has formal training in design and conservation and lately graduated from the University of Tartu with a Master´s degree in Art History and a thesis concentrating on the elaborate historic interiors of Baltic Germans, formerly a very significant minority group, both in cultural and economic terms.

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