New director of the Estonian National Museum, Kertu Saks: “Importance of ethics in museum work has never been as important as now”

  • 2022-05-27
  • Linas Jegelevicius

The nearly three football field-size Estonian National Museum (ENM) with over one million artefacts has a new leader – the former director of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia foundation (CEEF), Kertu Saks, who has been picked out of nine candidates as the next director of the museum, replacing Alar Karis, who was been elected as Estonia’s new president. 

She has previously also worked as a director at the Energy Discovery Centre, worked as a journalist for Eesti Päevaleht and as a coordination manager for the Ministry of Social Affairs' European Social Fund.

Mrs Kertu kindly agreed to answer The Baltic Times questions during an annual museum event, the European Museum of the Year Awards for 2022 (EMYA), which was held in the ENM at the beginning of May.

After an hour-long tour of your museum ahead of the EMYA rewards, the immensity of the museum and the exhibits you have simply stunned me. Is there anything else you could possibly add to it?

The vast building you left impressed with does not serve only as a museum, but also as a concert hall and conference venue. It is also an art museum, as we have a lot of art galleries. And we also have a cinema and a theatre here, they attract people on their own. All of the facilities are actively used.

With so many things going on here, the primary activity of the museum – being a museum – may not stand out – to some at least. As I took over the job just four months ago, I told my colleagues that as one of my key goals I see highlighting more the ethnological exhibitions – bringing them more to light for the general public.

As you replaced the country’s current president in the job, do you not feel a little bit overshadowed by him? I bet some people, including museum staffers, feel like stacking you up against Mr. Alar Karis. What signature projects do you intend to bring on board to carve out your place in the museum?

Thank you for asking the questions so straightforwardly. I understand very well that the expectations being placed on me are very high – no less than that of the former director-turned-president – are placed on me as the new director. 

Understandably, people expect me to be a strong leader, one with clear opinions reflecting not only what is going on in the museum, but in political life, too.

In my view, day-to-day politics should be minimal in managing the museum. But since you can not stay away from politics entirely – and the war in Ukraine is the best current example of that, we have to deal with politics too.

Besides, the museum is also a science institution – many scientists use the museum for their scientific research and so on. One of my missions is to keep up the scientific level.

As I mentioned, I feel that the museum activities sometimes are overshadowed – at least in the public domain – by the other above-mentioned functions, so I’d like to bring more focus on our primary goal – being a museum.

How did the museum address the war in Ukraine and the deluge of Ukrainian refugees in Estonia?

We’ve opened a whole stand featuring the objects from Ukraine. It includes not only Ukrainian folk costume items, but also some pottery, like jars, cups, even Easter eggs – Ukrainians have wonderful traditions of egg garnishing.  We set up the exhibition right away after war broke out there.

Notably, our museum is free for Ukrainian refugees and hundreds of them have already visited it.

Furthermore, we’ve employed several Ukrainians, like the photographer for the EMYA awards and the translator. 

We also initiated Estonian language and culture courses for the Ukrainian refugees to help them learn the language and get acquainted with our culture.

On top of that, labour fairs for Ukrainian refugees are being organized once a month in our museum. So, in a word, our involvement in the Ukraine cause is significant.

As we are talking during this great event being held in your museum, the European Museum of the Year Awards for 2022 (EMYA), can you discern the distinctions of the winners?

They clearly embed the messages that the entire Europe seeks to send – equality, inclusion, tolerance. I believe that, speaking of modern museums, their activities, exhibitions and so on should be weighed on the scale – whether it is ethical, whether (it is) discriminatory or inclusive. 

As we see from this year’s EMYA nominations and winners, many of them have dealt with vulnerable societal groups – be it refugees, the LGBT community or, say, a single elderly person who is distant from culture and cannot utilise it just because his or her mobility is limited.

Some of the winner museums are addressing even a broader spectrum of inclusion and variety, like the transvestite culture, something we see being addressed on the European level.

At the event, we saw that the main prize went to the leaders of a movement for decolonisation. To me, this means that every museum, in exhibiting something or even collecting, should answer where one or another item came from, or whether there is consent of the person, or the place, where it was obtained.

And if you cannot say that you’ve received consent for that, maybe you should think of returning the item to where it came from. I believe we should be at least analysing the origin of items to be put on display.

The issue is more acute for bigger old Western countries, which have the past as former colonial countries, not for the three Baltic countries and Estonia, though.

The dimensions and the importance of ethics in museum work has never been as important as it is now.

The EMYA event host from Italy called your museum as possibly a “standard-bearer” for other European museums for years to come. How encouraging and obligating is this notion to you?

Indeed, winning the main prize, the Kenneth Hudson Award for Institutional Courage and Professional Integrity (it is is named in honour of the irreverent and critical perspective of Kenneth Hudson, the founder of EMYA, and is given by the European Museum Forum board to a museum, a group or an individual – not necessarily an EMYA candidate – L. J.) is like winning a Eurovision song contest by a singer or a band.

Allowing us to host the EMYA event is a huge acknowledgment of the Estonian National Museum.

As part of the event, while discussing how European museums should evolve, our example was brought up by many event participants, which is a big honour for us. It also bestows big responsibilities on us – to keep up the good job the museum has been doing.

I’ve heard that approximately one-third of your over-one-million artefacts have been digitalised. What about the rest?

Indeed, we’re aiming to speed up the efforts of digitalisation of our exhibits, which amount to over one million now, so they will be available for the broader public. Right now, approximately, one third of the artefacts are available virtually. The lower than you may expect numbers are due to the immensity of our collections. Just the photos number in the millions and then we have thousands of physical not paper-based items. And we are adding new items regularly. So digitalisation is an ongoing process.

Do you have statistics of how many of the tourists in Tartu end up visiting your museum?

I think the majority, as the Estonian National Museum is the main attraction in Tartu. We are looking forward to meeting our 1 millionth visitor within the next couple of months. Before the Covid pandemic, we averaged 200 thousand visitors per year. As to most, the pandemic has been bad, but we see the visitor numbers increasing again.

Do you have a strategy how to monetize all your activities more?

For one-third we rely on state support, but as I mentioned, we’re offering a variety of activities generating income – we even offer catering services and a restaurant.

Your term is for five years. I understand it is too premature to speak of your legacy, yet what would you like to see done by the end of it?

First of all, raising visitor numbers to at least to an extent where they were before the pandemic broke; bringing the existing and new collections to light – I mean having more people coming here for them, not the other activities.

We’ve started renting some of our exhibitions abroad – an effort we’d like to increase, as it generates additional income.

Of course, strengthening the scientific function of the museum is equally important. Being creative is part of every single one of our days.

In your museum, I saw the chair and the PC of Skype founder, an Estonian man. How important for you is contemporizing the museum?

Indeed, that is also on top of our daily activities, as Estonia has recently made a leap in technology development.

You mean Estonia’s new unicorns? You have nine of them now, don’t you? Are you intending to obtain some of their memorabilia?

(Grins) We are well aware of them, and they are on our list. We’re in discussions with our scientists as to what extent the permanent exhibition we have can be adjusted or changed. In my opinion, it has to be updated, reflecting the changes that are happening, and the arrival of the new unicorns is certainly worth paying attention to.