2019 | Estonian Memory InstituteEnvironmentalExhibition
Or how our hearts almost broke from all the pain, beauty and pride.
An exhibition to talk about crimes of communist regimes in a 200 years old building
How do we get people to understand what the crimes of the communist regimes were, and how do we reinforce the notion that these crimes were timeless and that by remembering them we can prevent them from happening again? How to design an exhibition, that would treat a 100 year old building complex with respect (and keep the National Heritage Board happy)? How to create imposing display in a space, that doesn’t give mercy to the visitors and the exhibit itself with its dampness and cool temperatures?
Yes, you got it right, that’s exactly a Velvet-kind-of-challenge! When the excellent people from Estonian Institute of Memory invited us to a journey to create an opening exhibition to the International Museum of Communist Crimes, we didn’t think twice. And we do not regret that decision.
We based the whole content and form of the exhibition on a concept „Communism is Prison“, drawing parallels between the ideology, regime and the physical prison environment. The exhibition is designed to the finest to be an emotional journey, with exact doses of hope and hopelessness, fear and light, freedom and distress. We decided to respect the building at its natural state and use only a subtle exhibition layer. The exhibition is built up on two contrasting shapes – red spikes symbolise communism and white fragile fabrics are the victims, their human soul. You can’t find the modern digital interactions in this exhibition. Visitors relate to the story by experiencing the room first-hand, taking the roles of the prisoners, interrogators and as people condemned to death.
The opening of the exhibition became an event of national importance, which was honoured by the presence of the Chancellor of Justice and several state ministers. The opening was broadcast live in the online publication of the largest daily newspaper in Estonia, Postimees. The exhibition has been well received by the public.
During the first 3 months after opening, nearly 25 000 people have visited it and over 2000 people decided to visit Patarei on Museum Night alone. There was no heart left untouched. The people of the Estonian Institute of Memory have heard heartfelt thanks from the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, have received handshakes from former repressed ones, for whom it is very important that their lives do not fall into oblivion. And seen the tears flowing from visitors eyes and heard the words “It is incredible what you have gone through and what you have survived.“
Ever since we created this exhibition, we’ve held one precious memory closest to our hearts. In order to share it, we have to uncover a bit of history first. Every evening the political prisoners locked up in Patarei prison would lean against their windows and sing: “Good night, good night to everyone, night has fallen now, good night, good night…” Many prisoners in solitary confinement were awaiting execution and it was never certain which of your comrades would live to see another day. Not even the prison guards would forbid them from singing this.
In a fit of creative flurry we decided to recreate this song. We contacted Ageeda Paavel, a 89-year-old lady, who was imprisoned in Patarei as a 16-year-old girl, because she and her friend blew up a Soviet war monument. Ageeda remembered the lyrics, but not the tune. First we found an angel-voiced young lady, the same age as the prison-aged Ageeda, and asked her to improvise a tune. Then we recorded what happened during their meeting. A teary-eyed Ageeda recognised the recreated tune as the one she remembers from her youth. Obviously Ageeda wasn’t the only one at that moment whose eyes were glistening with tears.
This tune, resurrected by a senior of VHK, Kätriin Helena Huttunen, can be heard playing in solitary confinement of Patarei prison. Curators say that Ageeda’s story combined with the song is the emotional highlight of the exhibition for many visitors. When the Velvet crew visited the exhibition, we experienced as much. From the moment we heard the song and until we left everyone fell into contemplative silence.
We were and still are extremely proud and grateful to be able to call ourselves one of the authors of this exhibition. We still get goosebumps every single time we see the video introducing the exhibition. Special thanks Alexander Heifets and Taigafilm for this (scroll a little to see the video).