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Original Estonian flag delivered to new permanent home at national museum

Previously only removed from storage for public display on rare special occasions, the original blue, black and white Estonian flag, consecrated on June 4, 1884 as the flag of the Estonian Students' Society (EÜS), was ceremonially delivered to the new Estonian National Museum (ERM) building on Thursday, where it will be put on permanent display as part of an exhibit on the founding and formation of the Estonian identity and state.

The two young men in blue, black and white fraternity caps, matching ceremonial sashes and white gloves were not chosen to be quite possibly the last two people ever to unfurl the original, 132-year-old Estonian tricolor because they were born and raised in Narva and someone needed to prove a political or emotional point.

As a matter of fact, the two young men simply belonged to a six-person honor guard that was chosen at a fraternity meeting last week, as official protocols for handling the historic flag, originally consecrated in 1884 as the flag of the Estonian fraternity EÜS, to whom it still legally belongs, call for it to be escorted by the fraternity's president as well as an honor guard.

On Thursday morning in Tartu, things were initially no different. Seven men dressed in suits topped with matching ceremonial sashes walked the short distance from their historical fraternity house at Jaan Tõnissoni 1 to the old Estonian National Museum building located at Veski 32 and went inside to retrieve the flag, which was kept in storage furled in a special fireproof steel case. The flag, which could only be retrieved from there and publicly displayed with the explicit permission of the fraternity, had most recently seen daylight two years prior, on the 130th anniversary of its consecration.

This time, however, the heavy case containing the flag, carried out by the honor guard as though they were pallbearers, was loaded onto an ERM transport truck, after which it was driven across town to the site of the new Estonian National Museum, located at Muuseumi Road 2, and unloaded and transported inside by the same six men, with the fraternity's president, Villem Ödner Koern, watching on.

On display for all

Asked by ERR News if the flag was in the right hands now, Koern responded, "Of course it is in the right hands. [Our members] ourselves established the Estonian National Museum in 1909. There couldn't be a better place for it to be."

Koern, who was himself of mixed Estonian and Swedish background, first laid eyes on the original Estonian flag as a child, when it was displayed at St. Charles' Church in Tallinn in the 1990s, greeted by Estonian President Lennart Meri. A decade and a half later, he himself would end up joining the fraternity to which his father and grandfather before him belonged, and whose president he would become another nine years after that.

His was also one of a handful of speeches given when the old flag reached its destination in a dedicated room, yet mostly empty but for a specially-built case into which it was placed after being unrolled and positioned by members of the flag's honor guard and museum specialists whose responsibility it was to care for it.

"In your youth, you came from Otepää and entered into student life in Tartu; you hid yourself from strangers in the foot of a chimney," recalled the fraternity president about the flag's tumultuous past. "Now your role is to encourage people in the chaotic rush of everyday life to recall bigger values as well as inspire Estonian youth to patriotism. May you enjoy it here."

ERM Director Tõnis Lukas, who promised onlookers that the historic wrinkles visible in the fabric would remain, noted in his speech that the Estonian people had a special relationship with this flag — that it was sacred. "The Estonian National Museum has the extraordinary pleasure of being this flag's permanent home for the second time already, and this time finally in a way that it can be seen by all," said the director.

Members of the fraternity and other onlookers alike thereafter took up song, singing "Estonia, my fatherland" ("Eestimaa, mu isamaa"), the fraternity's official song, before the flag was wheeled into place in its dedicated protective display case. This proved to be an unusually emotional moment for museum curator Riina Reinvelt.

Speaking to ERR News following the ceremony, Reinvelt said that she felt very proud overall. "The Estonian National Museum has stored the flag for about twenty years, and all this time, it has been stored on top of a cabinet in a fireproof steel case in the precious metals repository, which is the most secure repository in the museum, and it has never been taken down from there without EÜS having decided that it will be taken out — and EÜS members themselves have always taken it down from there," she explained. "And to see now how it was unrolled and will be there for everyone to see — and the moment when the flag was unrolled and EÜS' official song was sung... I am not a very sentimental person, but I just thought that was such a reverent moment, and so patriotic, that I still teared up a bit."

Reinvelt explained that she thought it was very important that one of Estonia's most important national symbols was finally on display for everyone to see — and that it was there for all to see, not exclusively for Estonian-speakers. The museum's hundreds of electronic signs are capable of displaying text in up to fifty languages each. While initially the museum just didn't have the resources to translate all of the displayed information into so many languages, the first three to be included will be Estonian, English and Russian. "And Russian too specifically so that those Estonians who do not speak Estonian can still understand what is what and what is being displayed here," she explained. Finnish and Latvian, the languages of Estonia's closest neighbors, will hopefully be the next languages to follow.

The flag as a part of daily life

While the moment was an emotional one for many present, ERM Public Relations Manager Kaarel Tarand admitted to ERR News that the day's events were more practical in nature for him. "This is the logical course of things," he explained. "Finally the prewar situation is being restored in which the original flag was in the hands of the Estonian National Museum as EÜS had placed it in their care. EÜS would have surely been ready to do so sooner, had the national museum been able to provide the right conditions for it."

Tarand expanded on this point, pointing out that while many cultural institutions, infrastructure and even entire cities were extensively damaged during World War II, most were more or less restored to some degree during the 1950s, 60s, or 70s at the latest. "The only one that has had to wait for 70 years, and patched up its war wounds, so to speak, with whatever tools were handy meanwhile, was the Estonian National Museum," he claimed. "Now this had gone on for too long — throughout the entire period of restored independence, this went on for too long! But alright, there is no point in complaining anymore, as now it has been completed; now it is in place."

Tarand, who was also one of the men to reestablish EÜS in Estonia in December 1988, noted that over the past two and a half decades, he had repeatedly seen the flag as well as been able to touch it and stand before it, and while the flag was truly a unique relic of history, when considering its beginnings, flags in student organizations were actually considered everyday items. "They were used for ceremonial purposes too, but they were in daily use as well," he explained. "Even with this flag, I've gotten used to it and learned to treat it as though it were homey and my own. One shouldn't feel any excessive sense of awe or anything; one should simply think positive thoughts."

Pointing out that nobody had ever actually maintained any sort of monopoly over the color combination of blue, black and white, Tarand found that while using the tricolor tended to inspire anxiety during the late 1980s and early 90s, as people worried about where, when and how they could or should display it, the flag today should ideally inspire feelings of coziness and safety in Estonians, and nobody should ever worry that it could be taken away from them.

The people's flag? Yes and no

While it has now indeed been placed once more in the care of the ERM, who will henceforth be displaying it in a permanent exhibit open to the public, EÜS still retains the right of ownership of the flag, which means that legally it will still remain their property.

"We have plenty of items here in the museum which have been placed into our care from somewhere else; it is not all property of the museum or the state," Tarand explained. "This idea that everything which is recorded as a museum piece becomes property of the state — EÜS has never found that it should be this way."

The PR manager found that in a modern country following the rule of law, there was nothing to worry about as things occurred on a contractual basis, just as was the case with works of art in art museums, which likewise did not all belong to their respective museum or even state.

And so a contract would allow the ERM to share a unique piece of history with the world while still allowing EÜS to retain ownership rights over an important relic of their past.

The ERM is scheduled to open to the public on Oct. 1. Tickets to the museum are already available for purchase; according to the ERM's homepage, a full-museum adult ticket costs 12 euros while student, family and group discounts available as well.

Editor: Editor: Aili Vahtla

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