The groundwork for an Estonian Maritime Museum was laid by a group of enterprising former sailors, who skilfully used the opportunities offered by the nation and society of the time.
The group was made up of Madis Mei, Evald Past, Aleksander Heinmaa, August Gustavson and Evald Avik, Director of the Waterways Board, who all wanted to record and preserve cultural heritage related to maritime history.
Such initiatives do not develop out of nothing, though.
Collection of historical nautical material had already started in the late 1920s. On 2 September 1931, the Päevaleht daily printed a public call for collecting maritime-related heritage objects and bringing them to the Waterways Board. Objects of greater interest were exhibited there in two small rooms, and that rudimentary collection can be regarded as a predecessor of the museum.
A couple of years later, on 24 December 1934, the Director of the Waterways Board issued a directive for establishing the Maritime Museum Foundation; and spacious lofty rooms were assigned to the museum in Tallinn, on Baikov shore (not far from the present-day Terminal D of the Port of Tallinn). The festive opening of the museum on 23 February 1935 was attended by 360 persons, including the Chief of State. Madis Mei became the first director of the museum.
Unfortunately, the museum could function without disruption only for five years, since on 4 November 1940, after the beginning of the Soviet occupation, the Head of the Estonian National Shipping Company issued a directive to close down the activity of the museum in the port and move it to the facilities of the Sailors’ Club at Uus-Sadama street.
Madis Mei, one of the founders of the museum died on 17 December 1940, and Benjamin Valter, former captain of the Suur Tõll icebreaker was appointed as the new director. However, due to troubled times and the war, the assets of the museum were packed up and, fortunately, stored in the basement of Kiek in de Kök tower in Tallinn Old Town (the old building was completely destroyed in the war). After the war, the assets were officially transferred to Tallinn City Museum, and partly to museums of local history in the town of Haapsalu (western Estonia) and the island of Saaremaa.
On 18 August 1959, a department of maritime history with two employees (Viktor Tõnissoo and Helge Peterson) was established in Tallinn City Museum, and the assets were gathered to the Sailors’ Club. In July and August 1960, a successful exhibition entitled ‘Estonia and the Sea’ was held, which contributed to the museum’s transition to official independence: the Estonian National Maritime Museum, headed by Ants Pärna, was re-established by a directive of the Minister of Culture of 1 July 1961.
Finding new facilities and preparing the exhibition took time, and the museum, now located at 70 Pikk street in Tallinn Old Town, was opened to guests only on 22 October 1965. The exhibition was rather compact, limited by the facilities in an accessory building of Fat Margaret tower. It was clear at the outset that the massive tower itself, standing empty and roofless, had to be renovated and put into use. However, everything did not go as swiftly as expected.
The decision of 23 October 1974 of the International Olympic Committee to hold the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow was the final incentive. The Olympic regatta would be held in Tallinn, and for that occasion, a number of buildings were to be restored in the Old Town, including the Great Coastal Gate complex. The museum was closed on 26 December 1977, and restorers of the Polish company Budimex arrived in the beginning of the following year. The works, however, were delayed, and therefore only a temporary exhibition could be put on by the time of the Olympic regatta. The museum was definitively reopened on 27 April 1981.
The story of the exhibition in the Seaplane Harbour
Since even the rooms of Fat Margaret were too small for displaying huge exhibits, the folks at the museum had always dreamed of yet larger facilities.
As the new millennium started, there were new developments, when some of the Maritime Museum’s ships were accommodated at the quay of the Seaplane Harbour.
In 2010, renovation of the historical Seaplane Hangar begun in order to house larger exhibits, and on 11 May 2012, the Maritime Museum opened – in addition to the existing display in Fat Margaret tower – another exhibition in the Seaplane Hangar.
This new permanent exhibition, named ‘A Seaful of Excitement’ and occupying more than 6500 square metres, features the Lembit submarine, a Short 184 seaplane, the Maasilinn ship and a dignified collection of mines and sailing boats. In addition, the Seaplane Harbour is home for all of the Maritime Museum’s ships, including, in particular, the Suur Tõll steam-powered icebreaker, whose 100th birthday was celebrated in 2014.
The journey to becoming Estonia’s most visited museum, with two large permanent exhibitions, has been filled with difficult as well as joyous moments. But the aim of the museum is still the same: to record and preserve cultural heritage related to maritime history and to build up respect for and love of the sea.
An aquarium at the Seaplane Harbour now hosts the underwater photography exhibition ‘The Underwater World of Shipwrecks’ by Aire Eder. The aquarium exhibits 26 underwater photos of shipwrecks in Estonia, Norway, Cyprus, Croatia, and Egypt.
Enterprise Estonia (EAS) announced supporting the application of the Estonian Maritime Museum for adding a family-centred attraction to the building complex of Fat Margaret.
The postmark commemorating 50 years since the construction of the research vessel Mare of the Estonian Maritime Museum will be issued on 5 April.