Museums of music: Tallinn

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Exhibiting music highlights the challenge of presenting the intangible, through tangible and digital objects, with fragmented collections. In this post I explore these topics as experienced in various Museums of Music across the world while arguing that music can help close the gap between culture and heritage. In this post: Tallinn.

Estonian Theatre and Music Museum  – Tallinn (visited August 2017)

August Pulst (1889-1977) was an artist, collector of folk music and antiquities, and is recognised to be the driving force for the foundation of the Music Museum in Tallinn. He was also director of the Estonian Art Museum and the Estonian Open Air Museum. The entrance opening panel reads:

“If they say that the Estonian nation has gained its freedom by singing, it can also be said that the doors of the Music Museum were opened by the singing and playing of our folk singers and musicians. They shall always have the credit for this” August Pulst (1934).

The story goes that Pulst gave shelter to composer and organist Peeter Süda (1883-1920), who prematurely died at age 37. Süda’s collection (including musical instruments, sheet music, books, and his notes) was at the core of the Music Museum, which was established in 1924 when Peeter Süda’s Commemoration Society was founded (renamed Music Museum Society in 1931) by composers Mart Saar, Cyrillus Kreek, and August Pulst. The society became the Museum of Music in 1934 when it opened its doors at its current location at the Tallinn Conservatory building. The Society of Theatre Museum (found in 1937) joined the Music Museum in 1941 to become the Estonian Theatre and Music Museum. In 2019, the museum became part of the Estonian History Museum group (formed by the Great Guild Hall, the Maarjamäe Palace, and the Film Museum). The Estonian Theatre and Music Museum collects, preserves, studies and introduces Estonian cultural heritage in the field of theatre and music. The museum has a music and theatre department, music and theatre library, as well as a music library. The largest part of the collection is held in the musical archive, housing about 570,000 pieces, and the photonegatives, made up of about 134,000 images.

The Estonian Theatre and Music Museum holds over 750,000 items, a portion of which is available through the national Museums Public Portal including 6,500 music manuscripts (with images when licensing permits), 700 musical instruments, 2,500 art objects (including paintings, sculptures, and various other objects), 10,000 posters, 18,000 negatives, 5,000 digital photos, 700 audio carriers and 300 films. The theatre collection contains 36,000 objects. The collection also includes a vast archive about music and theatre organisations, about musicians and composers, and about the role of music and theatre in Estonia. Above a Pillow Antsu Diatonic Kettle (with a heart), a Diatonic Kettle by Elmar Treilmann (with a star), and a phonograph Monarch Senior.

The catalogue online is a project by the Ministry of Culture, with support from the EU Regional Development Fund. Objects often include multiple images, as the cello bellow, and a unique identifier. The catalogue information includes the collection name and number, object name, details (such as size), and some report on condition and cultural value assessment (not always filled). Surprisingly, information on maker, date of production or area of origin are rarely reported. All images clearly display the licensing for use (in this case CC-BY-NS-SA).

Back to the physical visit, the permanent exhibit ‘Stories and Songs’ opened in 2017 and was awarded the Best Permanent Exhibition Award of the year. It presents music and theatre as key elements defining identity. In the image below, you can see how the display cases creatively frame the objects in colourful backgrounds, in this case a collection of strings, one of which has a detailed head visible in the reflection of a little mirror.

All displays are in Estonian and in English. The museum also provides information in Russian and in Finish. The main text is brief and includes highlights for the visitor to note, for example below, there is a circle with a little guy pointing at the oldest instrument in the collection.

Many of the panels also contain a touch screen where more information is available about the objects, the composers, and yes, the visitor can hear the instrument’s sound.


One of my favourite parts was the availability of a piano made by the Tallinn piano factory in 1983. The piano is used regularly for concerts but for tourist with limited time, it is a treat to have the chance to play ! On the photo below a passionate music student showcase his improvisational talents while on holidays.


The museum covers various time periods and topics, organised in various levels. The staircase provides additional information on panels about the first Estonian… including the fist jazz band (1935), the first gramophone record (‘The Sun is Still Shining in Autumn’ my August Weizenberg from 1902), the first music school (1919), the first stage director with a professional academic diploma (Voldemar Panso), and the fist National Opera performance (‘The Estonian Vikings’ by Evald Aav in 1928).

Another staircase panel notes the influence of theatre and music in society today. It notes the performance of ‘My People’ by Chalice at the reception of the President of the Republic of Estonia on the Independence Day in 2006, and various moments in history when ‘people involved in theatre and music contributed greatly to the restoration of Estonian independence’, what is known as the singing revolution (1987-1988).

An upper floor presents the theatre collections, all following the same display format of colourful panels prominently including some form of interactive. In the photo below you can see the image collection of theatre clothing displayed next to a series of try-on pieces.


There is little about the collections on the museum’s website. Some objects are visible on the Instagram account of the museum (such as the image below) while the Facebook account serves to announce the various activities going on. The promising YouTube channel has not been updated for a few years. It would be helpful to have a link to the national Museums Public Portal for those interested in learning more about the rich musical collections.

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The collection online at the national portal is clearly meant for specific users as it provides a catalogue format with little contextual information to catch the online user’s attention. There is a strike contrast between the image on Instagram above and the catalogue display below. Still, the national platform is a notable step in providing open access to heritage content to the world.

In fact, the Theatre and Music Museum have a collaboration with the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund which, together with other volunteers, are supporting the digitisation of collections and adding the information into the database. High manual labour costs continues to be an important challenge for museums wanting to share their collections online.

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With thanks to Ann Aareslid, Head of Collections at the Museum of Music and Theatre, for providing invaluable information for this post.


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I am a researcher on the historic and economic aspects of digital heritage. In my free time I sing and paint.

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