History of the University of Tartu Museum

The University of Tartu History Museum (now called the University of Tartu Museum) was founded on December 6, 1976. It is the youngest member of the University museums family. It was already in the early 1960s when the Associate Professor in Organic Chemistry and devoted history enthusiast Tullio Ilomets began collecting instruments and other important objects in history of science from the University buildings.

The collected equipment, instruments and teaching aids were first stored in the attic of the University’s main building where the historic student lock-up is located. A fire broke out in the main building in 1965 which significantly set back the collection work.

In 1971, the University History Commission began publishing a journal “Tartu Ülikooli ajaloo küsimusi” (Issues of the History of the University of Tartu). The series continues to be published to this day, only now it is edited by the UT Museum. The University History Commission was entrusted the founding of the University History Museum. Rector Arnold Koop signed the decree establishing the Museum on December 6, 1976. In 1979, the Museum was allotted four rooms in the basement of the main building in order to establish a permanent exhibition and store its collections. The first permanent exhibition was opened on April 1, 1980, and it covered the University’s history till 1918.

In 1981, the University of Tartu Library moved into its newly constructed building and moved out of its historical building in the ruins of Tartu Cathedral, which was given to the University of Tartu History Museum. During these first years the Museum shared the building with the Department of History and the editors of the collection of articles “Skandinaavia kogumik” (Papers in Scandinavian Studies). After a series of small renovations, the building was reopened and a new and extensive permanent exhibition, covering the history of the University of Tartu and the history of science in Estonia to the present day, was opened on September 1, 1982.

In 1985, the Museum had to once again take down its permanent exhibition and close its doors to visitors due to the extensive renovation of the building carried out by a Polish company Budimex.

On November 28, 1989, the Museum unveiled already its third permanent exhibition during its short period of existence.  By this time the political climate had significantly changed compared to the time of the two previous permanent exhibitions and these changes were also visible in the radically different new exhibition – for the first time it was possible to draw attention to the establishment of Estonian as the language of instruction in the University in 1919.

In September 1982, another branch of the Museum operated on Veski (then Burdenko) Street – the apartment museum of Dmitri Ulyanov. The apartment was home to the brother of Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin; Ulyanov studied medicine in Tartu for a short time. As the political climate changed, the small exhibition was reorganised as well. The branch was renamed the Student Museum and it began exhibiting the everyday life of UT students through the ages. In 1997, the Student Museum was closed and its exhibits found a place in the University of Tartu Museum’s permanent exhibition on Toome Hill.

The restoration of the towers of Tartu Cathedral was completed in 2005. In the same year, the Museum opened an exhibition in the Old Anatomical Theatre, which gives an overview of the history of the over 200-year-old building that is a significant symbol of medical, cultural and architectural history.

In 2009, the renovation of the Old Observatory began with the help of the Regional Competitiveness Improvement Programme of EAS, Enterprise Estonia. In April 2011, the Old Observatory was opened as a museum.

In 2014, the University of Tartu Art Museum was added to the UT Museum and since then the establishment is collectively called the University of Tartu Museum.

Since one of the main tasks of the Museum is to introduce the Univerity’s latest research achievements to the public and popularise science and studying at the University, we have to continually create new exhibitions. After an initial presentation in the Museum exhibition halls, exhibitions are often dispatched to various places all over Estonia in order to introduce the history of science in Estonia and the University of Tartu.

The last decade has seen a remarkable increase in the Museum’s educational activities. New exhibitions are now accompanied by education programmes which help schoolchildren acquire additional knowledge and teach them to explain scientific problems that might at first seem puzzling. The Museum believes it is important to support schools in teaching sciences by demonstrating historical science equipment in a historic environment and offering students a hands-on experience in physics and chemistry programmes