About a history of the Estonian Health Museum

The idea to establish a health museum came from the Union of the Medical Societies of Estonia. Professor Aleksander Rammul, the Head of the Health Care Institute of the University of Tartu, raised the question about the need for such a museum. A medical exhibition staged at the 1st Congress of Estonian Medical Professionals (held in November-December 1921) gave the direct impetus to act when it was decided to preserve some of the exhibits for the future museum. Tartu was selected as the location of the new museum.

On 22 November 1922, the working group on the Health Museum was established. The members of the working group were Professor Aleksander Rammul, Professor Aleksander Paldrock, Assistant Professor John Blumberg, Dr. O. Tomberg, Dr. G. Kroll; Stud. Med. Voldemar Sumberg was elected the secretary of the working group.

”Health museums are not just depositories of antiquities and historical artefacts. They are educational institutions aiming to educate people about health care issues through illustrative and captivating exhibits, while firmly grounded in the requirements of real life and scientific achievements.”

Estonia had no prior experience in running such museums, so the secretary was sent to Dresden, Berlin, Amsterdam, Helsinki and Paris to see how health museums are managed there and to learn from their experiences. V. Sumberg prepared a development concept for the museum: “Health museums are not just depositories of antiquities and historical artefacts. They are educational institutions aiming to educate people about health care issues through illustrative and captivating exhibits, while firmly grounded in the requirements of real life and scientific achievements.”

Building on that concept and on the principle that prevention is more important than treatment, the working group, under the leadership of Voldemar Sumberg, undertook the ambitious task of establishing a health museum. The first exhibition, featuring 300 exhibits, was staged from 21 December 1924 to 1 November 1928 in two rooms at the address Vanemuise 46, Tartu. The first exhibits were borrowed from foreign museums but soon the museum had its own workshops and labs that made replicas and preparations.

In 1929, the museum moved to the building at Pepleri 32 (the street’s name has been changed several times: from Pepleri Street to Kindral Ernst Põdder Street in the late 1930s to Pälsoni Street in the Soviet era and back to Pepleri after Estonia re-established its independence) which remained the location of the museum until 1948. The museum had 16 departments:

  • the human body and its functions
  • food and health
  • dental health
  • infectious diseases and bacteria
  • parasites
  • consumption (TB)
  • venereal diseases
  • the health of mother and child
  • tumours
  • health at school
  • occupational health
  • accidents and their prevention
  • first aid in case of accidents
  • alcoholism
  • home hygiene
  • folk medicine

The museum also had a collection of diapositives and films and a thematic library. Besides the permanent exhibition, the museum had a travelling exhibition, featuring 600 duplicates of exhibits, shown around the country. 22 exhibitions were held at 22 locations across Estonia in the period of 10 years (1924-1934). The travelling exhibition was accompanied by a doctor who introduced the exhibits and answered questions. Sending lecturers to the countryside was complicated and costly, so it was decided to start broadcasting weekly health lectures on the radio (the first lecture was broadcast on 6 March 1930). The programme was on the air for eight years, broadcasting a total of 189 lectures.

The museum provided courses for “good Samaritans” and first aid training for the general public. Exhibitions were staged and lectures delivered at agricultural-industrial fairs because these events attracted many visitors. For that purpose, a special pavilion was built on the Estonian Farmers Society’s exhibition grounds in Tartu.

The museum was also very actively publishing thematic products of knowledge – 371,000 publications were issued in the first 10 years of the museum’s existence. There was no popular literature on hygiene and healthy lifestyle in Estonian and the museum undertook the task of filling that gap. Booklets (“Health of mother and child”, “Puberty and sexual education”, “Stomach ulcers”, “Worms in the bowels of humans”, etc.), leaflets (“Snake bite”, “Health care commandments”, etc.), posters, pictures, post cards and stamps were produced in large print runs (500 to 5,000 copies). Magazine “Tervis” (“Health”) was started in 1932. The editor of the magazine was V. Sumberg. The most important comprehensive publication was “Tervise käsiraamat” (“Health manual” in 12 volumes, 1938–1941), which was supposed “to become an established and trusted health publication and a symbol of doctors’ commitment to their patients”.

The Tallinn branch of the Estonian Healthcare Museum was opened on 4 March 1928, first at the address Vana-Pärnu mnt. 19A and later at Kloostri-Kooli 7.

During the 10 years of its existence the Healthcare Museum became “the centre of the state’s health promotion activities and the institution that actually engaged in the popularisation of health-related knowledge”.

This was made possible by the concurrence of several favourable circumstances. First, the young country of Estonia wished to raise general health awareness among the population and allocated funds for that purpose. Second, the activities of the museum were supported by Estonian doctors – the most educated and forward-looking members of society – so that in 1938, V. Sumberg was able to declare that “the feeling and the desire formulated in 1922, that the Estonian Health Museum should be backed by our whole medical community, has come to fruition once and for all”.

This was also spurred by the rise of national awareness after the proclamation of Estonia’s independence – everybody was eager to contribute to the benefit of the nation. And last but not least, the curator of the museum was Dr. V. Sumberg – a man of great initiative, intelligence and organisational skills who raised the museum to Western European standards

After Estonia’s annexation by the Soviet Union and V. Sumberg’s arrest in 1944 (he was the Minister of Health in Otto Tief’s government) the museum could not continue as before. However, the museum was still open to visitors as a unit of the Centre of Sanitary Education of the Republic. From 1948, the name of the museum was no longer used. According to witnesses, many of the museum’s exhibits were destroyed or lost: wax models were melted, objects made of copper were sold and some exhibits were just stolen. The life-work of Dr. V. Sumberg and many others was destroyed – the museum ceased to exist and the first period of its history ended. In 1952, the Centre of Sanitary Education of the Republic had only one exhibition room and eventually it, too, was transferred to the Tartu Medical School.

The issue of the Healthcare Museum was raised again in the Regulation of the Central Committee of the Estonian Communist Party and the Council of Ministers of the ESSR of 1968 “On the improvement of health care and medical science in the republic”. But no action followed. In 1977, the weekly newspaper “Sirp ja Vasar” published an article about the need for such a museum.

In 1978-1979, things started to move, and again, the initiators of the idea turned to the Dresden Museum of Hygiene. Exhibits were selected by Dr. Raiot Silla, Deputy Minister Oku Tamm and the Chief Doctor of the Centre of Sanitary Education of the Republic Maano Kivilo. The rooms for the museum were found on the 4th floor of the Tallinn Medical School at Tüve 25. So began the second period of the museum’s history. The museum was officially opened on 31 January 1980, this time under the name of the Health Museum of the Centre of Sanitary Education of the Republic. At the end of the year, H.-R. Martinson was appointed the curator of the museum.

The exhibition “Life and Health”, which gave information about the functioning of the human body, was interactive, which was a novel approach and played an important role in making the museum the centre of health education. Exhibits of human anatomy, physiology and healthy life style, with particular attention to children’s health, were showcased in five rooms. The main attraction of the museum was the famous GLASS WOMAN – a life-size rotating glass figure showing all the human organs. It was an excellent teaching aid to show the location of internal organs. Visitors could listen to tape-recorded explanations. The museum also gave lectures, staged exhibitions and ran a club for young people who were interested in the medical profession.

In 1987, the museum started to raise awareness about the problems of people with disabilities – problems that officially did not exist in the Soviet Union. An exhibition “Rehabilitation measures and tools to aid patients, invalids and the elderly” (the first of its kind in the Soviet Union) was staged, accompanied by counselling and awareness-raising at all levels of society.

Despite its off-the-beaten-track location, the museum was very popular. The prescribed number of visitors (30,000 per year), which was the most important performance indicator at the time, was exceeded each year. In 1982, the museum had 32,025 visitors.

The premises at Tüve street were actually not suitable for the museum – the rooms were small, stuffy and inconvenient to access. In 1986-1989, the Polish company PKZ renovated two buildings in the Old Town, at Lai 28 and 30, for the museum. The keys to the new premises were given to the curator of the museum on 14 July 1989.

The exhibition “Human and family” had become somewhat shabby and out-dated by that time and needed to be renewed and supplemented. There was also reason to believe that moving the museum would damage the exhibits even more. And the Medical School desperately needed demonstration materials. Therefore, it was decided to leave a large part of the exhibition at the disposal of the Medical School and to order a new exhibition from Dresden.

From 1 August 1989, the museum became an independent organisation and was again called the Estonian Healthcare Museum. The third period of the museum’s history began. The museum continued the activities of its predecessor – raising health awareness, delivering lectures, publishing. The permanent exhibition “Human. Health. Family” consisted of three sections:

1) human anatomy and physiology

2) sexual biology

3) health education

The anatomy/physiology section gave an interesting overview of the composition, location and functions of the internal organs. Electronic models (the Glass Woman, the Pregnant Woman, the Cell), replicas, apparatuses and embalmed human organs were used to introduce the human body to different age groups. The sexual biology section concerned sexual development, procreation, pregnancy and birth control, child birth and STDs.

For years, the museum organised lectures for expecting mothers and their families to inform them about the forthcoming changes. The museum also hosted the project “From youth to youth”, which concerned sexual health. The emergence of HIV and AIDS called attention to STD awareness. The museum had long-term cooperation relations with the association Anti-AIDS that provided the museum with materials to be disseminated among visitors. Health education included lectures about the adverse effects of alcohol and drug abuse as well as smoking on human health. The collection of health-related films was actively used. The museum had good relations with health education and biology teachers who conducted classes in the museum. The museum ran a club for young people interested in the medical profession. A charity flower fair was held each spring to collect money for children suffering from illnesses and disabilities. Before WW2, such events were organised under the White Flower Movement to raise social awareness about tuberculosis.

Besides the permanent exhibition, there were temporary exhibitions on the history of medicine, medical equipment, tools to aid people with disabilities, etc. and art exhibitions. The museum staged an average of 20 exhibitions per year but in 2001, there were as many as 28 temporary exhibitions. Starting from 1990, the museum has organised annual conferences on medical history. The Association of Estonian Medical Professionals, the Association of Estonian Junior Doctors and a number of professional associations, which have resumed their activities after Estonia restored its independence, have very close contacts with the museum.

The appointment of the new Curator Margus Jurkatam in 2007, the establishment of the foundation and the new permanent exhibition marked the beginning of the fourth stage in the history of the museum.

Since 2018, the daily work of the Estonian Health Museum has been managed by Kadri Rannala, previously acted as the museum’s development director.