The University of Tartu Museum is to open a new permanent exhibition “The University of our Lives” about the history of the university

Photo credit Andres Tennus

On 29 November the University of Tartu Museum will reopen to the public the Morgenstern hall in the historic Tartu Cathedral, together with a new permanent exhibition on the history of the university, created to celebrate the centenary of the Estonian national university. The exhibition covers the university’s story through the four centuries of its existence and looks to find out how the University of Tartu has affected the lives of every one of us.

Professor Margit Sutrop, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and chairman of the advisory board of the celebratory events organized on the occasion of the centenary of the national university, says that the time spent at the university is pivotal in every student’s life. “The densely studious atmosphere of the student city, meeting memorable people, dedicated professors and scientists, as well as undertaking joint ventures with peers has an impact on the formation of a personality. Alumni of the University of Tartu have always been the ones to shape the future of Estonia—not only as researchers, but also as teachers, politicians, entrepreneurs and community leaders, which is why the role of the university is even greater in the development of Estonia than it seems,” she explains. Sutrop believes that the new permanent exhibition will highlight the academic spirit of the universitas, which stimulates our social thought.

At the exhibition, telling the story of the University of Tartu is structured with the help of three beginnings: foundation in 1632, reestablishment in 1802 and foundation of the Estonian-language national university in 1919. Departments of the university and the impact that Tartu’s academic history has had on our current life are presented to the visitors. The exhibition also covers the cultural contacts of the university in the past three centuries, and shows how the university’s buildings have formed the cityscape of Tartu. A large part of the exhibition is dedicated to students and student life.

“It seems impossible to bring four centuries of the University of Tartu together in one room. Therefore, we can only highlight fragments of this great story in our exhibition. We have created an environment where people may discuss and think about the meaning of the university independently,” says Mariann Raisma, the Director of the University of Tartu Museum and head curator of the exhibition. “We attempted to conjoin two aspects, the uniqueness of the alma mater and the atmosphere of the 19th century library. One of the greatest values of the new permanent exhibition is its genuineness—the spirit of the library, which was the symbolic centre of the university, can be seen and felt here. Some technological solutions were used in the exhibition, but we hope to have successfully hidden them to maintain this special atmosphere,” she adds.

A widespread campaign to collect memories about the university was organised for this exhibition. Many of the stories collected have now been published for the first time. What is more, for the first time, the data of album academicum was assembled—a database, which includes the names of all the people who were matriculated at or graduated from the university since its foundation until now, more than 180,000 names altogether.

The new exhibition of the history of the university has many interesting and special museum pieces, like the full-body portrait of King Gustav II Adolf from the 17th century, items that belonged to some legendary professors, and vivid details of student life. Extremely detailed mock-ups of student apartments and copies of the historic foundation charter of the university, done masterfully by hand, are also on display.

Children have been kept in mind in curating this exhibition, as they have a chance to explore a secret library, consisting of children’s books donated to the museum by employees of the University of Tartu. The visitors are surprised by the “spirit” of Karl Morgenstern, floating around the hall.

Curators of the exhibition are Mariann Raisma, Lea Leppik, Kristiina Tiideberg, Terje Lõbu, Janet Laidla, Ken Ird, Kaija-Liisa Koovit, Virge Lell, Karoliina Kalda, Paula Põder and Külli Lupkin from the University of Tartu Museum. The designer of the exhibition is Mari Kurismaa and graphic designer Mari Kaljuste.

The renovation of the hall and creation of the exhibition were funded by the University of Tartu, Ministry of Culture, Epp Tsirk-Jüriado via the Estonian American Fund, Cultural Endowment of Estonia, the city of Tartu, Embassy of Sweden, Moodne Valgustus and Joonstuudio.

Additional information: Mariann Raisma, Director of the University of Tartu Museum,, +372 522 1702