The exhibition “My Free Country” takes visitors on a journey through 100 years, from the birth of the Republic of Estonia to the modern day.
Visitors can go through eight rooms presenting an overview of the important events of the era through the displayed artefacts, texts and design of each room.
The story begins with the winds of change in the 20th century, when changes reached the westernmost governorates of the Russian Empire – Estonia and Livonia. Revolutions and WWI, but also electricity, sport, fast vehicles and so on that changed society and everyday life. A group of Estonians emerges who start working towards autonomy. This culminates in the declaration of the independence of the Republic of Estonia on 23 February 1918 in Pärnu from the balcony of the Endla Theatre. Visitors can picture themselves on the balcony of the theatre and read the manifesto of independence.
The Republic was born in the midst of war. We must remember the War of Independence, the military coat belonging to war hero Julius Kuperjanov with its fatal bullet hole, as we should also remember the assistance that came from abroad. Once the medals have been awarded to heroes, the story becomes bright again, as the war is over, the border is finalised, and a peaceful period of building a new state begins, albeit temporarily disrupted by an attempted Communist coup. Gradually, life gets better, the Estonian language starts to gain a foothold everywhere, new farmsteads appear, the country becomes a renowned exporter of butter and eggs. Although the financial crisis takes its toll and life was tough for workers, life becomes more comfortable – an AEG fridge, an Elektrolux vacuum cleaner and a Siemens electric shaver. Visitors can go on a bike ride in Tallinn, Pärnu or Narva. Children can try to make a tower of eggs.
A time of plenty, leisure and rest in the beautiful homeland, a break for many. Estonia’s own industry is getting on its feet. Visitors can experience the glamour of the 1930s and learn some fashionable dances. However, things are brewing in the state, the opposition is suppressed, anything unpleasant is hidden behind home beautification drives and other campaigns promoting nationalism. The first President moves into Kadriorg Palace.
The story continues in the grey tones of sorrow with a red hue. It is the end of the independent state, and many are forced to leave, or are taken away by force. The options are limited. People must survive in the changing occupations during WWII, in prison camps or as refugees. Some take a handful of homeland soil with them, some make a doll from bread in a refugee camp. Wartime makes people resourceful – a christening gown can be made from parachute silk. But in war, it’s friend against friend, brother against brother.
The Soviet occupation. Closed borders, pioneers and collective farms. Shortages and acquaintances. People are afraid. The KGB with a button camera. Visitors must also remain vigilant: is “Big Brother” watching? There’s nothing in the shops, but the pantry is full. But somewhere, there’s a world where you can hear My Fatherland is My Love; rock music, and the shops are fully stocked. There are those who don’t like the regime. But there are at least the endearingly familiar polka-dot storage containers.
The people have had enough now. We join together, and there are a lot of us. Although many things are only available in exchange for ration coupons, people are making cotton candy and lollipops, establishing co-ops or even joint ventures. The borders are cracking, and everything new and fancy is also reaching our shores. People are fighting in the phosphorite war, defending old monuments, forming the Popular Front and Citizen’s committees. They are demanding freedom loudly. Visitors can stand in the Baltic Way. The different sides are arguing, there is a moment of disquiet when some attempt to take the Soviet Union back along its old path. On 20 August 1991, the Republic of Estonia is restored again.
Suddenly, there are so many options that it’s difficult to choose. The country is rebuilt again. Young politicians make bold decisions. Whoever disagrees can establish their own political party. Entrepreneurship is out of control, at times going beyond good business practices to the extent of cowboy capitalism. People can take out mortgages to create their dream home and protect it with a heavy security door. Or, they could take a seat on board the first Estonian Air Boeing, and go discover the world.
The story reaches the modern day. Everything is in its place. The country has secured itself by becoming a member of several unions. Everyone knows what they want. The winners are prominent, the losers are finding it difficult to make their mark. There are real success stories, the internet, e-Estonia, start-ups. Baruto and Pärt. Organic produce and an increasing sense of community. It is also a time of sobering up. The economic crisis, dissatisfied people protesting. The people who were lost are visible again. Visitors need not worry, there is WiFi. There is nothing but the future ahead.
The exhibition ends in a project room. Every year, an artist shares their vision of Estonia 1000 in this room, based on the idea that in 1000 years nature, technology and people have been completely interwoven.
In 2018, the artist duo Varvara&Mar invite people to a parallel reality. The installation “Neuronal Landscapes” allows us to dive into a parallel reality and see the surroundings through AI eyes.