Estonian Art Exhibit Causes Uproar
Kultuur 18 Oct 2016  EWR
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New museum reacts to criticism from religious groups and others, removing offending part and calling this a learning experience. 17 October 2016
The newly inaugurated Estonian National Museum has responded to pressure from local Christian groups, politicians, and the general public, altering an installation portraying iconoclasm during the Reformation.

The exhibit that caused so much controversy is a virtual image of a holy statue of the female form projected onto a set of glass panels. When a visitor kicks a spot marked on a concrete pedestal under the glass panels, fast-changing lights create an illusion of the saint virtually shattering to pieces, forming the word “Reformation.” The screen soon resets to the initial image until the next kick.

The heated discussions over the piece started when Urmas Viilma, the archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, expressed on his Facebook page concerns over an exhibit that created, he said, an irresistible temptation to smash an icon depicting the Virgin Mary. Viilma called the presentation an insult to believers for whom the Virgin Mary is not just a historical figure, but a reality even today. Various Christian groups, as well as news outlets in Estonia and around the world, joined in condemning the alleged mockery of a symbol of faith.

Mart Helme, chairman of the opposition Conservative People's Party and former Estonian ambassador to Russia, drew attention to the political implications of the artwork. He opined that the “Virgin Mary exhibit” (as it has become popularly known) could not only complicate the integration of religious Russian-speakers in Estonia, but also might cause a cooling off of relations with Russia.

As the controversy accelerated earlier this month, the museum’s director, Tonis Lukas, told the Estonian news outlet Postimees that the museum was ready to react to public opinion and hurt feelings, and alter the exhibit. The interactive feature has since been removed.

In an interview with TOL, Kristel Rattus, general manager of the exhibition, stressed that the exhibit was not meant to portray any specific saint, and rather was intended to provoke people to think of the consequences of their actions. “Destructive forces are present in any society. Does the possibility to do something destructive justify the act itself?” she asked.

Rattus does not consider the change made to the installation as an act of societal censorship, she said. The interactive feature was removed, as it failed to support the message of the exhibition creators, facilitating aggressive behavior instead. This case, in her words, offers valuable discussion material on how a cultural history museum should portray often contradictory historical events and cultural phenomena.

• The National Museum of Estonia was inaugurated on 29 September and opened to the public on 1 October, on a runway of a former Soviet airfield a few kilometers outside of the country's southern city of Tartu. The museum is the largest in the Baltic states, exhibiting Estonia's history from the Stone Age to the present day.

• Estonia, evangelized in the 12th century, is considered to be one of the least religious countries in the world. While predominantly Lutheran, only one third of the population declares adherence to any religion.

• In 2011 the Estonian Ministry of Culture ordered the Estonian History Museum to remove a part of its exhibit on notable former residents of Tallinn that referred to Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi politician and ideologue. The local Jewish community, other minority groups, and parliament members complained that the exhibit did not mention anything about Rosenberg's involvement in the Holocaust.

(Compiled by Liga Rudzite)
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