Behind the scenes at the museum with Dr Elspeth King

What is it that makes us who we are? What are the experiences that shape and define us? The circumstances that create our beliefs and values? What are the factors that have made Scotland the country it is today; the country we call home? Intriguing questions that lead in turn to the question of how we preserve our identity, both as individuals and as nations. How do we protect the integrity of our past, our history, our heritage? And crucially, who is it that decides what is important, or significant enough to be preserved? Why are some people and events remembered and celebrated, while others are brushed to one side, forced into obscurity? These were some of the questions I put to Dr Elspeth King, director of the Stirling Smith Museum, and her answers were enlightening.

T.S.Smith’s remarkable painting The Pipe of Freedom, 1836, celebrated the abolition of slavery in America

A woman of great erudition and insight, Elspeth firmly believes that museums are at the very heart of our national memory: the key to knowing and understanding our identity. They hold the objects that mark the great moments in our history. The moments that had a lasting impact on our parents and grandparents and beyond. Museums preserve, display and interpret artifacts that are at the very core of our lives, our values, our passions. Our tangible, but also our intangible, inheritance. And reflect our place in the world. From local to global.

We need museums. But we need to ensure the history they portray really is our history. Museums, like newspapers and television, can be only too easily manipulated to distort history, just as they were by the totalitarian regimes of which there were no shortage during the 20th century! Yet it’s a sad truth that most countries today still have their own ruling elites, those people who use their power and wealth to influence the selection and interpretation of artifacts, to create a view of history that reinforces their own position of dominance and control.

The oldest football in the world, at home and in pride of place in the Stirling Smith Museum

Stop for a moment and just think how many national museums are littered with antiquities looted from more ancient, but poorer, nations. Antiquities stolen on an international scale by European empire-builders, with the British more often than not setting the worst example. There’s nothing noble about theft under the guise of imperial aggrandisement. It would be interesting to know whether any of these national institutions are hurrying to give back what they stole: the on-going saga of the Elgin Marbles being a very sorry case in point!

But local museums are a very different kettle of fish and more likely to genuinely reflect the history and heritage of the communities they serve. Yet they are all to often neglected and underfunded. Why? Is it because the holders of the purse-strings are exactly those people who control the decisions about who or what is important, and who ensure that it is their elitist view that prevails – whether in the world of art, music or museums?

The Smith’s very own Wine Bottle Lunette by GlasWorks

It’s a challenging situation for the dedicated staff and volunteers of local museums, and there are a lot of issues involved. But, as I hope I demonstrate in this month’s iScot article, there are countries like Estonia and Australia where museum staff are showing clearly that different attitudes are possible. There’s a whole lot going on out there! And here in Scotland, Elspeth King has been at the forefront of saving the past that really is ours from oblivion.

One country which faced just such oblivion is the small Baltic state of Estonia. They finally regained their independence in 1991 and with great joy, and amidst much celebration, opened their wonderful new National Museum in 2016 (with not a stolen artifact in sight!)  At long last, after centuries of some of the most horrific foreign subjugation, they been able to present their own history, culture and identity. And it’s not without a wonderful touch of irony that the new museum is built on the site of a former Soviet airbase!

The start of a new journey: Estonia celebrates the opening of its new national museum

In the foyer are these heartfelt words: ‘Not only the Estonian National Museum but the entire Estonian people find themselves in a new era… But Estonians have not forgotten that one becomes a citizen of the world through one’s own culture, which is why it’s important to know one’s roots. And it is not only necessary, but also interesting and lots of fun.’ Then they add these lovely, hopeful, words, saying that the creation of their own national museum is ‘the end of a long journey and the start of a hopefully even longer one.’

So, if you’ve ever wondered how you became the person you are, or why you live the way you do, or why some objects fill you with joy, sorrow or pride, or why you feel so strongly attached to the values of the country that you call home, then, to misquote the immortal bard, ‘Read on, Macduff!’, for you’ll find this article a pertinent read indeed!

iScot

Estonia – where the past is preserved to protect the future

In Raekoja Plats, Tartu

It’s pouring with rain: and no, I’m not in Scotland, but back in the beautiful city of Tartu, the ancient university town in the centre of the Baltic country of Estonia. I have to admit there’s something reassuring about knowing that heavy rain isn’t just a feature of life back home!

Estonia isn’t a large country geographically. It’s population isn’t large either. Tragically, the number of Estonians still hasn’t caught up with figures from before the Second World War. There are still fewer Estonians today than in the 1930s and ’40s, when hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes by the Germans, and then by the Russians, and murdered: here or in Siberia, or in all the other places the Soviets chose to destroy the lives of those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. And for the Estonians that lasted 50 years, until they regained their independence in 1991.

The villa where the Treaty of Tartu was signed between Finland and Russia in 1920

All this is in the past now. But the effects linger. And sometimes that past isn’t so far away. On visits to the DDR, East Germany, when it was still firmly behind the Iron Curtain, I heard of torture being inflicted on those who wouldn’t follow the ‘party line’. Yet this wasn’t centuries ago. Only a few decades. Democracy is a precious but fragile gift and needs to be nurtured – and sadly all too often fought for.

But today we visited Estonia’s brand new National Archive building where the past is conserved and preserved, both for today and for the future. In these days of fake news and spin doctors we’re as much under the sway of propaganda as any generation before us. Day in and day out we’re fed lies, untruths and deliberate omissions that would have done Goebbels proud. And no matter how much that thought angers you, or you think you couldn’t be fooled like that, the fact remains that manipulation and distortion have become widespread and  more important than truth.

The brand new National Archives of Estonia in Tartu

The majority of our newspapers are owned by billionaires who neither live in the UK nor pay taxes there and whose political agenda certainly doesn’t include telling the truth. But what I find hard to understand is why so many people today don’t question the ‘information’ they’re fed. Don’t ask for evidence, for sources. When I was at school, then unversity, any essay that didn’t include a sound argument would have been deemed unacceptable.

Painstaking conservation work restoring old maps and documents

So when, and why, did so many of us give up questioning the ‘news’ we’re fed? Is it really so much more comfortable to live with fake news than to make the effort to challenge it?

This is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly that archives, and libraries too, are of vital importance. They are repositories of facts. Of contemporary accounts. Who said what? Who did what? What was decided and why? And so often the answers to these questions are held in archives. And yes, what is held there can sometimes be the product of ‘to the victor the spoils’, but very often there are other records to balance out the actuality of events.

The criminals of the past are not necessarily those we’d see as criminal today

Propaganda is nothing new. Far from it. How many people happily believe Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth, a portrayal which is miles from what actually happened? Or his version of the reign of Richard III? Or just what really went on in Britain’s colonies during the dark days of the British Empire? Or why wealth in Britain can’t be shared out more equally? Or why the NHS can’t be afforded when we have more millionaires and billionaires in the UK than ever before?

It’s so important that we question and ask for proof, otherwise we become as much victims of today’s propaganda as anyone else. It’s not just the foolish that fall for it – even the most intelligent can be victims of their own self-belief. So when in doubt consult the archives.

Marking the founding of the city in 1030

I’m very glad that Estonia is investing so heavily in its past. Not only has the country given its archives a new home, they’ve also just completed a whole new National Museum. The past IS important. Who we are today depends on our past. Where countries stand today depends equally on their past. Archives hold and guard these pasts and we need them more than ever to understand the present and be vigilant about our future.

If there’s one thing we need to hold onto in the face of so much fake news and spin, it’s to ask questions and insist on proper answers. And to teach our children to do the same. Never stop asking questions and, if the answers aren’t forthcoming, know where to find out the truth for ourselves!

National Archives Estonia

 

“How are the mighty fallen… ” Helme Castle in Estonia

“How are the mighty fallen and the weapons of war perished.” 2 Sam 1:19

Helme Castle May 2016 04 500pWhen the Teutonic Knights began their Northern Crusade and swept through the Baltic States in the 12th century, they would have found it hard to imagine that their once mighty fortresses would end up nothing more than heaps of rubble.  But we know that empires rise and then fall. Ruling dynasties weaken and fade away. Powerful elites come and go.  And if there’s one thing that history teaches us, it’s that change is the only constant throughout.

Ruinous walls held upright by rickety wooden scaffolding

Ruinous walls held upright by rickety wooden scaffolding

A couple of weeks ago we visited the remains of one of these Teutonic fortresses, Helme Castle in Southern Estonia. Built in the 13th century it was a massive oval-shaped stone fortress surrounded by two moats. From here the knights ruled the surrounding lands (now Estonia and Latvia) with an iron fist.

The castle was an unmistakable and seemingly impregnable symbol of power and control, but it all came crashing down during the Russo-Swedish War of 1656-1658. With strategically placed barrels of gunpowder, the Swedes blew it up to keep it out of Russian hands. Only small sections of the walls remain today, and we were surprised to see that they are propped up with even more rickety-looking wooden scaffolding!

(c) Wikipedia Creative Commons

(c) Wikipedia Creative Commons

The Teutonic Knights used the excuse of the ‘Christianisation’ of the pagan peoples of Old Prussia and the Baltics to raid, slaughter and then rule the lands they brutally conquered. In time they turned to attacking neighbouring Christian states as their desire for power and wealth grew. Greed, not faith, lay at the heart of their actions.

Power and control can be wielded in many and varied ways. Throughout history people have been ruled by the power of the sword. Fortunately for most of us in the West today that’s no longer the case and we tend to believe ourselves to be free of these sort of tyrannies.  But is that really the case?

It’s no longer possible for any of us to deny that the equally brutal power of institutional corruption controls much of the world we live in now, and in many ways decides our fate and permeates our daily lives as much as the Knights of the Sword did in medieval times.  And again it’s greed that lies at the heart of it all.P1230671

Roberto Saviano, the brave Italian journalist and writer, has spoken out fearlessly against organized crime – crime that comes in many guises. Institutional corruption is perhaps the most malignant and all-pervading crime we face today. Recently Saviano said: “It’s not the bureaucracy, it’s not the police, it’s not the politics but what is corrupt is the financial capital. 90 per cent of the owners of capital in London have their headquarters offshore. Jersey and the Caymans are the access gates to criminal capital in Europe and the UK is the country that allows it.”

So while we may not be faced with sword-wielding, armour-clad brutes, we are certainly living in a world where the evils of greed and corruption are destroying not only our chances for a fairer society, but also the future of our children.

The Castle remains sit in richly wooded countryside

The Castle remains sit in richly wooded countryside

Unfortunately the power of institutional corruption is so much harder to eradicate than that of medieval knights.  But it’s still up to us to do all we can to signal clearly what is right and what is wrong.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such massive immorality. That’s why it’s so important to remember that nothing in life is fixed or final and that change is always possible. Though never an easy or comfortable task, our predecessors have fought for change every step of the way to give us the freedoms we have today.  And it’s our turn to follow in their footsteps.

Now, where’s that gunpowder?!

Estonia: Flying the flag – or how traditions can save a nation (Part 3)

St Andrew's Cross - the Saltire - seen in the sky!

St Andrew’s Cross – the Saltire – seen in the sky!

Sometimes, on a clear sunny day when the sky is blue, the vapour trails from jets flying high overhead can leave a beautiful image of the Saltire, Scotland’s national flag.  The Saltire is believed to be one of the oldest national flags in the world and although no-one knows for certain how it came to be chosen, tradition has it that in AD 832 an army of Picts under King Óengus (Angus), with support from Dalriadan Scots, found themselves surrounded and outnumbered by Angles. Things looked bad and Angus prayed for divine help: to his amazement the clouds formed a white Saltire against the blue sky and the Picts and Scots won the battle.  St Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland and the Saltire, St Andrew’s Cross, became our flag.

St Mary's Lutheran Church in Otepää

St Mary’s Lutheran Church in Otepää

In the East Lothian village of Athelstaneford – where that momentous battle is believed to have taken place – the Scottish Flag Trust run the Flag Heritage Centre where the story of Scotland’s flag is told.

When we were back in Estonia in May of this year, we visited Otepää, a ski resort in southern Estonia, the country’s ‘winter capital’. There we discovered that, like Athelstaneford in Scotland, Otepää had played an important part in the history of the national flag of Estonia. In St Mary’s Lutheran Church we heard how the blue, black and white – the sinimustvalge – of Estonia’s flag came from the three colours in the caps worn by Tartu University students in the 19th century: and that these three colours were also used in the Estonian Student Union flag.

Blue, black and white colours on traditional Estonian student caps

Traditional Estonian student caps at Tartu University

It was this flag that was consecrated in St Mary’s Church in 1884 to become the national flag of the whole country.  In 1918, when the Estonian Republic was established, these three colours  became the new republic’s official national colours.  Then in 1991, when Estonia once again regained its independence,  it became the official flag of the the Republic of Estonia.

Bas-relief on the outside wall of St Mary's Church celebrating the consecration of the flag in 1884

Bas-relief at St Mary’s Church celebrating the consecration of the flag in 1884

Otepää is home to the Estonian Flag Room which was established in 1996 to commemorate their flag – a flag that is as important to Estonians as the Saltire is to Scots. In fact, it was a delight to see so many Estonian flags being carried and waved with pride at Laulupidu, the Song Festival the previous year: not waved in anger, or superiority – but as a natural part of their lives : this is my land and I love it!

Today, November 30th, is St Andrew’s Day and is celebrated by Scots the world over. Celebrated as a mark of respect for our country and its long history. Celebrated as a sign of our shared heritage and identity. Celebrated to mark all that is good about Scotland. Almost every other country in the world celebrates their homeland in a similar way.

The Flag Heritage Centre at Athelstaneford - birthplace of the Saltire

The Flag Heritage Centre at Athelstaneford

Symbols are important. Identity is important. Knowing where you belong, and why, is important. Sadly some people deliberately attempt to equate national pride with imperialism or xenophobia. A foolish mistake. For there is no doubt at all that it’s good to know who we are and what we believe in.  It’s good to know about our past and to understand – and value – the struggles of all the ordinary people that have brought us to the point we are at now: though it can also be daunting to know that we have to play our part in these difficult times if we are to ensure that our country continues to grow and develop in a way that is good for all its citizens and not just the few.

Flags are wonderful symbols and I will be celebrating St Andrew’s Day this evening. But I’ll be celebrating Scotland every other day of the year as well!

The Flag Room in Otepää

The Flag Room in Otepää

The Flag Heritage Centre

The Estonian Flag Room in Otepää

 Laulupidu

Estonia: The Magic of Laulupidu – or how traditions can save a nation (Part 2)

Choirs gather in Tallinn from all over Estonia and beyond!

Choirs gather in Tallinn from all over Estonia and beyond!

Music and song play a great part in life in Scotland. We have a long and rich tradition of songs that reflect all aspects of life in this country. We grow up hearing the profound message in Robert Burns’ A Man’s a Man for A’ That, sung so movingly by Sheena Wellington at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.   Or For Auld Lang Syne, arguably the most-played and best-known song in the world. We have songs that talk of the common humanity we all share, despite the fact that it’s still very much an ill-divided world.

The procession from Tallinn to the Song Festival Grounds lasted for hours!

The procession from Tallinn to the Song Festival Grounds lasted for hours!

There are also songs of anger and frustration that the greed and corruption of the few can make life a misery for so many. Songs that are full of history and the tragedy that is man’s inhumanity to man. But again there are songs like Dougie MacLean’s heartfelt Caledonia, that celebrate the beauty of our landscape and our love for our country. Songs full of longing for justice and equality, for love, for basic human kindness. Songs that reflect the past and future hopes our nation.  Songs that add to what it means to be Scottish.

Beautiful traditional costumes

Beautiful traditional costumes

I was both intrigued and delighted when I discovered that music and song play a huge part in the life of the Baltic nation of Estonia, especially the song festivals that kept their culture and identity alive during centuries of foreign occupation. A few years ago a friend gave me a copy of a documentary called The Singing Revolution, made by a Canadian/Estonian couple, James and Maureen Tusty.  It’s perhaps one of the most moving films I have ever seen and tells of the brave and peaceful struggle by the people of Estonia to be free of the Soviet Union.  And, amazingly, how that long-standing tradition of music and song helped make the revolution possible.

The flame lit, Laulupidu could begin

The flame lit, Laulupidu could begin

This national Song Festival – Laulupidu – takes place once every five years, so when we returned to Estonia in 2014 we made sure we had tickets – and it’s an event I’ll never forget. Seeing people of all ages, from all over Estonia and beyond, descend on Tallinn in a breathtaking array of costumes was unforgettable. Then there was the patience of more than 25,000 singers as they waited in the blistering July heat to take their places in the opening procession from the heart of Tallinn to the song festival grounds.  Throughout the whole weekend the atmosphere was one of celebration, thankfulness, fun and friendship: hundreds of thousands of people and barely a policeman or security guard in sight – nor any mess either!

80,000 people undeterred by the blistering July heat!

80,000 people undeterred by the blistering July heat!

The singing was a mix of old and new songs – songs from the early days of the song festivals as well as by musicians and composers who had lived through the Singing Revolution themselves.  It’s almost impossible to decide on a favourite song, but two that I particularly enjoyed were Rein Rannap’s Ilus Maa (Beautiful Land) and René Eespere’s Ärkamise Aeg (Time of Awakening): both with a hymn-like quality and performed with real conviction and sincerity by almost 30,000 singers on the stage – feelings echoed by 80,000 more in the audience.

More than 25,000 singers take to the stage!

More than 25,000 singers take to the stage!

The pride in country and history that the people of Estonia wear so naturally is something we can all learn from: a nation that has no desire to force others to be like them, but instead celebrates the  joy of finally being able to be themselves.  Something that is so important to all people.

History never stands still.  Empires come and go. We bring up our children to become free and independent people, not eternally dependent on us.  Over and over again history shows us that peoples and nations – on every continent in the world – reach a point when it’s time for them to be free to make their own decisions about how their country is governed and how it treats its citizens.

A child steps out confidently, comfortable and secure in her nation's future - thanks to its past

A child steps out confidently: comfortable and secure in her nation’s future – thanks to its past

For me, what Estonia achieved – and how it achieved it – is something to be remembered and cherished: and is an example to us all as to how, no matter how long it may take,  lasting change can be made.

Links: The Singing Revolution 

The Singing Revolution: trailer

Ilus Maa (song)

Ärkamise Aeg (song)

The Corries sing A Man’s a Man for A’That