While anthropology has traditionally taken an interest in the ways of endangered exotic native peoples, modern anthropologists also study their own countries and especially the periphery. The organization of peripheral parts of society reveals the central values of its culture and the functioning of social relationships, Tallinn University senior research fellow Francisco Martinez said.
"My interest in the past goes beyond nostalgia. It is an attempt to find inspiration and knowledge in objects and phenomena that are on the brink of disappearing," Martinez, who has, among other things, published a monograph titled "Remains of the Soviet Past in Estonia," said.
Martinez has used examples from Estonia, Georgia and Portugal to explain how fixing up and renovating material objects can help give meaning to the past and inspire the present: "It is very important in Estonia as breathing new life into the material legacy of the Soviet Union makes it accessible to new generations and helps appreciate skills and technology deemed outdated."
Soviet architectural legacy
The researcher added that the past is seen rather uniformly in Estonia as the Soviet occupation has rendered the past something that has no value for the present and future. This is reflected in standoffish attitudes toward architectural legacy from the Soviet period, for example, neglecting the Maarjamäe Memorial or the Linnahall building.
Martinez said that several buildings, such as the Sakala Center [now the Alexela Concert Hall], have been destroyed to shake off the Soviet past. "Tallinn is being filled with new structures and buildings, while it is in the process of losing its distinctive countenance." The research fellow recommends shaping material culture while making allowance for existing legacy, instead of uncritically copying Western examples.
He added that it is important to ask what is lost when we get rid of the old. "For example, what do we stand to lose by renovating the kultuurikilomeeter [a stretch of light traffic road built on an old railway embankment passing by various historical buildings in Tallinn, created as part of European Capital of Culture 2011] in a particular way or what will be lost by not investing [in the restoration] of Linnahall or the Maarjamäe Memorial."
Martinez emphasized that every structure needs to be treated differently when renovating old industrial buildings as objects of culture. "However, the question of who will benefit remains. Several representatives of the cultural scene have been forced to move further toward the outskirts of town in Tallinn," he said.
The role of art in giving meaning to disappearing worlds
Martinez has involved artists and created original exhibitions to attach meaning to lost or disappearing phenomena. One such exhibition was only recently taken down at the Estonian Mining Museum in Kohtla-Nõmme, while there are other examples.
"When the renovation of the Baltic Station Market (Balti jaama turg) was first proposed, it was presented as an outdated and run-down place that embodies the Soviet approach. I invited 20 people to pick something they would miss if the market disappeared. It came together as an exhibition," Martinez said.
The researcher explained that even though the market had not been well cared for, it held considerable significance for more than a few people. "For example, it was an important space of socialization for people inhabiting the fringes of society."
In his soon-to-be-published monograph "Ethnographic Experiments with Artists, Designers and Boundary Objects," Martinez treats artworks as part of anthropological research.
He said that things and buildings surviving in time is valuable and beautiful in itself. "Material culture, but also various rituals and traditions, anchor our identity and instill continuity. It matters as everything else around us is changing ever faster," Martinez said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski