Effects of the Pandemic on Memory Institutions Discussed at the Virtual Baltic Heritage Network Conference

September 30, 2021

The Baltic Heritage Conference already took place for the 6th time from September 15-16, 2021, although it was the first time it was held virtually and was titled the “No Topic Conference.” Organized by the NGO Baltic Heritage Network and with the support of the Estonian Compatriots Program, the meeting was dedicated to examining the changes that took place in cultural heritage institutions as a result of the pandemic.

The main topics of discussion focused on how cultural heritage institutions coped with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic and other special circumstances relating to the coordination of work. Other topics included the use of digital solutions and the search for innovative solutions. During the two three-hour segments of the conference (taking place in the late evening Estonian time from 9 pm-midnight, in the afternoon on the east coast of the US and Canada, and early in the morning on the east coast of Australia) close to 40 listeners and speakers participated with 14 presentations. The event was opened by the greeting of the Baltic Heritage Network President, Piret Noorhani.

The Estonian Ministry of Culture Integration Department International Relations Director, Anne-Ly Reimaa, introduced Estonian diaspora policy from a customer-centred approach in her presentation. The national Global Estonian Program for the years 2021-2025 covers science, culture, diplomacy, business, and other fields. The goal is to bring compatriots as close as possible to the everyday life of Estonians and to support the potential return of compatriots to Estonia with assistance for adapting to life in Estonia while simultaneously preserving the Estonian identity outside of Estonia. The primary channel of information for the Global Estonian Program is the website www.globalestonian.com, which was established by Estonians in Toronto in 2011. As of 2018, the website houses a wider range of news regarding the activities of the Ministry of Culture, Estonian Integration Foundation, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Starting in 2021, the Global Estonian Program resides under the administration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Project Directors of the Film Archives at the National Archives of Estonia, Aap Tepper and Kadi Sikka, gave an overview of the background and current status of large-scale digitization work. Tepper is responsible for digitizing photos and Sikka for digitizing films as part of the Ministry of Culture project “Digitising Cultural Heritage 2018- 2023.” The goal for the first project of the digitization of photos is to digitize 35,000 glass and 65,000 film negatives from the years 1900-1960 and to make 100,000 images available to the public online. 22 memory institutions across Estonia are participating in the project, in addition to the National Archives of Estonia. The second project regarding the digitization of photo material heritage includes the digitization of 62,000 glass negatives and 5000 film negatives from eight Estonian memory institutions. There are also two projects as a part of the digitization of film material heritage. The first, the digitization of chronicle films, brings 120 hours of chronicle films preserved at the National Archives of Estonia from the years 1940-1967 to the public. The second project includes 125 hours of previously not digitized film heritage from Tallinnfilm from the years 1940-1993 (including feature films, documentaries and chronicle films).

The Interim Director of the Tartu branch of the National Archives of Estonia, Sven Lepa, gave an overview of the results of handwritten text recognition at the archives. The National Archives of Estonia has done tests of line text recognition using the platform Transkribus (https://readcoop.eu/transkribus/), which was developed as a result of two European Union-funded projects leading to the establishment of the legal entity READ COOP SCE in 2019. The National Archives of Estonia joined in 2020. The first step in text recognition work is the location of the text: the computer reads the lines of text and the artificial intelligence supported by pattern recognition technology is able to locate the lines of text in the digital image of a document and recognize the text regardless of the handwriting, number of characters, and language. The second step is creating training data, and the final step is to train the model. Artificial i n t e l l i g e n c e learns to recognize the shape of characters and the context of their occurrence in lines of text. As a result of the project, there are many models available to the public that have been trained by the project partners on large bodies of texts.

Senior Researcher at the Estonian Literary Museum, Marin Laak, introduced the virtual tours and virtual exhibits created at the museum. The advantages of virtual solutions compared to on-site activities include the removal of time or space limitations, increased accessibility, as well as the ability to reuse the technological platforms. The first online exhibit was created by the Estonian Literary Museum in 2019. This exhibit illustrated the growth of the archival library into the museum or a cross-section of the institution’s 110-year long journey. Today, the museum has created 13 virtual exhibits, 5 of which were developed as digital solutions. One of the more significant displays is the large exhibit of photos and documents dedicated to Oskar Loorits’ 150th birthday. The virtual tour “Jaan Kaplinski’s Journey” that was opened in February 2021 covered all of the dignified author’s published works, in addition to links to online publications, his blog, and audio recordings. Also created in this year, are virtual tours dedicated to the literary scholar, Rutt Hindrikus’ 75th birthday and author Arno Vihalemm’s 110th birthday. More information about all the virtual exhibits and tours can be found on the museum’s website: www.kirmus.ee.

The Director of the Audiovisual Archive of the Latvian Occupation Museum, Evita Feldentāle, introduced the additions made to the various uses of the museum’s photo collection. The photo collection includes about 27,000 photos, the video collection includes almost 3000 units covering over 5000 hours and 2420 interviews. As is characteristic of the time of occupation, few photos have been preserved; additionally, individuals were cut out of family photos due to the atmosphere fear or other techniques were used to hide the images. The photos that have made it to the museum have been scanned and are available in both pdf and jpg formats. There are significant gaps in the photo descriptions, often they are missing completely, and currently, the descriptions are only available on paper. The transfer of the photo descriptions has been supported by the Latvian Cultural Endowment. The results of these developments have only been used within the institution as of September 2021; however, in the near future, the digitized photos along with the descriptions will be available on the museum’s website.

The Project Director of the National Library of Lithuania, Dalia Cidzikaitė, addressed the Lithuanian thematic collection in the Europeana project “Migration in Art and Science.” The project took place before the pandemic from September 2017 to February 2019 including partner institutions from six countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, and Hungary). The goal of the project was to create a thematic collection reflecting migration in both art and science that would connect photos, film and documents in the form of a virtual exhibit. The substance of the work included scanning photos and documents, the transfer of meta data and images to the Europeana portal, creating the exhibit, and creating a migration dictionary that was translated into the languages of all countries belonging to the European Union. Lithuania digitized 3000 units and formed a four-person thematic collection (Aleksandras Mykolas Račkus, Jonas Šliūpas, Unė Babickaitė-Baye, Matas Šalčius), to which was added the digitized content of announcements and advertisements. Additionally, four blog articles were created featuring outstanding Lithuanian literary and theatre figures. The achievements of the project can be accessed on the website www.europeana.eu.

The Director of the Association of Estonians in Sweden, Sirle Sööt, along with volunteer, Madli Wiiburg-Walfridsson, gave an overview of the association’s activities over the last couple of years with an emphasis on collecting and describing photos. The photo collection is part of the Estonian cultural history archives in Sweden, which was established in 1970 by the Swedish Estonian Representatives (as of 1993, the Association of Estonians in Sweden) and is located at the Estonian House in Sweden. Over time the photo collection has grown and there are large numbers of photos without descriptions; thus, work is ongoing with the help of volunteers to date and describe the photos. Understandably, over the last few years, there has been an increase in digitizing photos. When the pandemic hit, scanning and describing took place virtually, communication was primarily over Zoom, although gatherings of up to eight people were allowed in Sweden, so those interested were able to continue meeting in person at the Estonian House. To conclude, the speaker thanked 101-year-old Swedish Estonian grand old lady Mai Raud-Pähn for her continued passionate collaboration and earlier contributions to the association’s work.

The Chief Archivist of the Museum of Estonians Abroad (VEMU), Piret Noorhani, gave an overview of events that took place during the pandemic. As a result of the pandemic-induced lock down, a significant number of events took place virtually for the Toronto Estonian community starting in April 2020 with a lecture series over Zoom. In 2020, 43 events took place, 20 of which were virtual (in addition to 28 videos posted on Youtube). By mid-September, 24 events have taken place in 2021, all of them virtual. In addition to events, archival work is continuing. The collections of the Estonian Central Archives in Canada is being moved to VEMU from their current home in the Toronto Estonian House because the Estonian House needs to be empty by spring 2022. The descriptions of VEMU’s document collections have been made accessible on the National Archives of Estonia information system, AIS. Furthermore, VEMU has participated in the project led by the University of Tartu’s Chair of the Department of Archival Studies, Professor Aigi Ragi-Tamm, where students have assisted in describing VEMU’s video collection. The Canadian Estonian school heritage collection campaign in collaboration with the Estonian Literary Museum is a good example of a project that could be transmitted to other diaspora communities. The preparatory work for VEMU’s new building is taking place; the Estonian design companies TMD and Velvet have been involved in designing the permanent exhibition. A new website is also in development with the help of Estonian company Kala Ruudus. In conclusion, good solutions have come first and foremost for the reason that the right people have been in the right places at the right times. Similarly, the support of digital solutions, thinking outside the box, and steady collaborations with great partners cannot be discounted.

Inese Kalnina from the Latvian National Archives introduced the Latvian exile (diaspora) archives located in Muenster from an archivist’s point of view. According to Inese, the German school system modelled after the legal system is tightly connected to archives. Documenting information is considered inherent in their cultural space, archives are cared for, and they are not considered as the lowest tier of institutions. The Latvian Centre in Muenster is a museum, library, and archives. The archives are very well furnished with proper archival shelves and a security system. The primary problem is associated with the limited accessibility of the collections. Arrangement of the archives was planned for spring 2020 but was stopped due to the pandemic. Archiving in person takes a minimum of weeks and months; hopefully, this work can continue again soon. There are a significant number of periodicals in the library, including collections of full series of rare publications. The archives of the Latvian Central Committee and Central Council (established in 1948) are still located at the Stanford University Hoover Institute and are accessible using the Online Archives of California. The Latvian National Archives received Latvian diaspora microfilms from the Hoover Institute in 2003. These microfilms depict life in refugee camps and in exile, as well as men’s military service and images before the war. The microfilms were digitized in the Latvian National Archives and are available on the archives’ updated website. During the pandemic the central archives system Meklē LNA has been enriched with material and refreshed in terms of design. The archives of the organizations of Latvians abroad, which were also located in Muenster, were transferred to the Latvian National Archives starting in the early 2000s.

Associate Professor of Library Science at Western Michigan University, Maira Bundža, spoke about Latvian collections in major US research libraries. The basis for the Slavic collection of the USA Library of Congress (established in 1800) was founded in 1907. Additional Latvian material was contributed by diplomats who were on their way to Riga from Russia in 1918, as well as from the University of Latvia in 1921 (incidentally, during this time the director of the Slavic section of the Library of Congress was Peeter Speek). Similarly, valuable Latvianthemed pearls can be found in the New York Public Library (established in 1895), where publications began accruing after the revolution in 1905 when more Latvians began making their way to New York. The University of Washington began collecting Eastern European and Baltic p u b l i c a t i o n s in the 1940s. As early as the 1970s, there was already a separate program for Baltic studies and in 1997, the Latvian studies centre contributed 12,000 publications. Today, the library and archives at Stanford University houses one of the best collections of Baltic studies literature. This collection was established by Olga Kistler-Ritso and is directed by Liisi Esse, who received her degree in history from the University of Tartu. Additionally, four community museums collect Latvian material: the Latvian Museum in Rockville, the Latvian Folk Art Museum in Chicago, and the Latvian Centre along with the New Culture Centre and American Latvian Cultural Heritage Association in the Three Rivers region of Michigan.

The Archivist of the Estonian Archives in the US located in Lakewood, Ave Maria Blithe, discussed the activities that took place since the spring of 2020. Throughout the pandemic, all those interested were able to visit the archives in person. Although the archival activities rely on volunteers and travelling to the archives depended on each individual’s preference (as well as following the recommendations to wear a mask), routine archival work wasn’t disrupted. Sharing information on Facebook has continued to be important and more official requests to the archives are being sent via Facebook often regarding searches for ancestors or for relatives positioned even further back in the family tree. More often, archivists are faced with fact-checking questions, which places memory institutions in a more important position as a result of the easy-to-copy digital world filled with prolific fake news. Information based on evidence and origin is always hidden in archival resources. On the other hand, warnings about reading disturbing information have started to spread in the United States (including when reading the Constitution of the United States on the US National Archives website). Additionally, the instances of removal or non-acceptance (including not collecting) of information with disturbing content have been more common. Therefore, the question arises, is this type of political correctness reasonable when making historical material accessible, or is it rather ridiculous or wholly dangerous?

Digital Data Analyst, Kristi Barrow, is a first-time participant in the BaltHerNet conference, although she has been active at the Estonian Archives in Australia (EAA) for years. The EAA’s previous website (created in 2001) and the recently updated website are both created and designed by Kristi. As part of the plan to enter the world of social media, EAA opened a Facebook account over a year ago. This main social media channel unites over 1200 individuals in the Australia Estonians group and 2100 individuals in the Balts in Australia group. Facebook is the fastest and most powerful platform at the moment. There are about 270 followers of the EAA Facebook account (this is a great result for a small institution supported primarily by volunteers, even in Australia!) and posts are made regarding anything related to the field. Furthermore, EAA has created an Instagram account (124 followers) and a LinkedIn profile (12 followers). One of the most successful activities that took place through Facebook was a photo describing campaign (reaching over 2000 people). The post “Happy Moon Day” with a description of landing on the Moon in 1969 received an active response, as NASA astronauts also took the Estonian flag to the Moon (reached over 2900 people). The post and collection campaign about the Great Flight of 1944 was well received. Donations are currently being collected to support the preservation of oral history. Overall, the information on EAA’s Facebook page has reached more than 10,000 people.

The long-time passionate leader and Archivist of the Estonian Archives in Australia, Maie Barrow, spoke about EAA’s activities prior to and during the pandemic. Understandably, EAA is solely supported by volunteer work. The backbone to finding information about EAA is the website with links to the websites of other institutions, including some personal archives that are accessible in the database of archives collections of Estonians abroad as a result of collaboration with the National Archives of Estonia. The spread of the pandemic has led to the creation of virtual exhibits, for example, exhibits on refugee camps and the restoration of independence. The most recent virtual exhibit titled “The Story Continues…” depicts the five waves of migration of Estonians to Australia. The EAA collections campaign “Migration Voices: Estonian Oral Histories 1952-2020” was awarded recognition from the UNESCO Australian committee on February 26, 2021. The goal of the campaign was to digitize EAA’s oral heritage collection. The project received support from the Ministry of Education and Research, although funding was also collected as donations, which was possible thanks to social media. Almost every donation was more than $200. The National Archives of Estonia has assisted in digitizing videos from the oral heritage collection, photos and written memoirs are next in line.

The conference concluded with Canberra history enthusiast, Ann Tündern-Smith, who introduced sharing Baltic research through blogging. The blog called “First Transport to Australia” (https://firsttransport.blogspot.com) tells the story of 839 people, half were Lithuanians, 280 Latvians and 140 Estonians. These people started their journey by boat from Germany on October 30th, 1947 and arrived in Australia on November 28th of the same year. Today, the life stories of 6 people have been compiled (Estonians Ernst Kesa and Helga Nirk, Latvians Biruta Pabrants and Edvins Baulis, and Lithuanians Henrikas Juodvalkis and Aleksandras Vasiliauskas), four life stories are in the process of being compiled. The speaker confirms that blogs are an important means of introducing collections and could also encourage others to share their stories. Additionally, blogs allow for more efficient access to the collections than through more traditional channels. The length of the story is also not the most important element of a blog, as the stories can be continuously added to and each blog post could be the basis for a more permanent article or research project. The weaknesses of blogging include the lack of an editor or the blog platform could disappear unexpectedly. For these reasons, it’s useful to save backup copies of blog posts or to archive the stories.

The full video recording of the conference can be found on the BaltHerNet website (www.balther.net). In conclusion, it can be said that the BaltHerNet community along with their partner institutions have adapted well to the changes that occurred during the pandemic. As an alternative to traditional methods, more technological solutions have been used, be it more intense digitization of collections, the creation of virtual exhibits or more active use of social media with the goal of making the collections more accessible. May you have strength and enthusiasm for digging the rows of memory gardens in every archive, museum and library, and a hopeful view to future meetings in person.

Birgit Kibal

Translated into English by Marika Mayfiled