Archbishop calls for return of church property held by museums

Golden dome restoration consecration at the Toomkirik, Tuesday, May 10 2022.
Golden dome restoration consecration at the Toomkirik, Tuesday, May 10 2022. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Archbishop Urmas Viilma of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (EELC) is raising the issue of the return of art masterpieces taken from Estonian churches and placed in Soviet-era museums, arguing that the state has not done enough to restore justice.

"It is time to address decolonization within the country and to add an ethical dimension to the discussion about the assets that were taken against the owners' will during the occupation and have not been restored in accordance with the rule of law," Viilma writes in an opinion article published on the ERR portal (link in Estonian).

Viilma writes that he is glad Estonia has begun to talk about the decolonization of museums and ethical exhibition.

"This means that if objects reached museums in an unethical way, whether during the colonial period or otherwise, they should be ready now to return to their former owners. And this ought to be done on ethical grounds—rather than looking for an excuse to keep these assets," the archbishop writes.

Unfortunately, neither the Estonian state nor museums have been cooperative in returning church assets, Viilma continued. Instead, after these artifacts have reached the museums, it has been often a matter of priority keeping them in museums rather than returning.

The archbishop writes that the church has raised the issue numerous times in meetings with government officials and museum leaders, but to no avail.

"The museums are unwilling to pursue this issue and the Ministry of Culture remained stagnant under various ministers. The matter is obscured or muffled. It is buried behind the law and there is little interest in hearing about ethics," he adds.

"In some cases, the anti-clerical stance that prevailed during the Soviet occupation has been transformed into a pro-museum battle to keep the status quo. They are doing everything they can to keep museum assets in their possession and are constantly coming up with new reasons why the assets cannot be returned to their rightful owners."

In addition, he continues, while legislative flaws are now acknowledged, "there is no desire to amend the laws to make them more ethical and stop the injustice."

"How is it that the Estonian laws prevent us from being ethical?" Viilma questioned towards the end of his commentary.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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