Year of Digital Culture — an unexpected acceleration of digital innovation in the arts

By Maris Hellrand originally for Life in Estonia Magazine

When the Estonian Ministry of Culture decided to dedicate 2020 to digital culture a few years ago, nobody in their wildest dreams could imagine the incredible acceleration that the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown would force upon the digital culture. In March and April 2020, the whole world witnessed a total disruption to the art world with theatres, cinemas, museums, libraries, and galleries closed, festivals, and concerts canceled, people confined to their homes. One could almost suspect a self-fulfilling prophecy of the year’s theme.

The art world has reacted with resilience, enthusiasm, and inventiveness. Theatres started streaming plays, musicians performing online from home, museums and galleries created virtual tours, libraries stepped in with public service beyond lending books.

Tallinn Art Hall already had started to prepare virtual access to its exhibitions in 2019, not in anticipation of a pandemic lockdown but rather as a way to widen accessibility to people who couldn’t come to the exhibition halls, either due to physical impairment or lack of time. This way, the gallery hoped to bring contemporary Estonian art also to art lovers and busy art critics around the world. The lockdown was the perfect opportunity to launch the virtual exhibition platform; its four current exhibitions have already been praised by the New York Times and Wallpaper Magazine.

New York Times: “… the smartest museums are thinking beyond the “virtual visit.” Since the coronavirus outbreak, the best on-the-fly digital exhibition conversions I’ve yet seen come from Estonia — the world leader of high-tech living and governance, where the Tallinn Art Hall has revamped its entire spring program for the web. Instead of dubiously “interactive” 360-degree views, Tallinn Art Hall has produced high-resolution video walk-throughs shot from fixed positions, within which you can click any object to pause the pan and scrutinize each sculpture or print.”

Taaniel Raudsepp, creator of the virtual exhibition platform, explains: “We chose a radically different approach to transmit the exhibition and space. Instead of technology-centered solutions, we use methods of traditional cinema to create space by moving the camera just like in film or a computer game. The interactive layer helps to navigate and use additional material.” Tallinn Art Hall hopes to develop the virtual exhibition platform further and offer it as open source to other institutions worldwide.

Estonian musicians have reached larger audiences with their lo-fi production home concerts than they ever could with live performances.Singer-songwriter Orelipoiss was the first one to set up a home concert, which has attracted more than 100 000 viewers so far. Mari Jürjens, a ballad singer who usually performs at intimate festivals and small venues, had more than 50 000 online viewers at her home-concert — more than the Rolling Stones at their Tallinn open- air concert.

Tallinn City Library was also quick to start offering a public service as a community hub — by setting up a tailor-made story-time for toddlers to give parents a break alongside a Skype-chat format for seniors to break the loneliness of isolation.

All of these examples have emerged as a quick reaction to the lockdown while the “Year of Digital Culture” initiative has aimed to get more digital accessibility and innovation off the ground.

Martin Aadamsoo coordinates the digital culture year. He has set out to kick-start projects that would show their true impact over many years rather than traditional conferences and discussions accompanying the theme years.

The Year of Digital Culture is a partnership between the Estonian National Library, Estonian Film Institute, Estonian Heritage Board, and Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR). This combination gives an idea of the different pillars of the project — books, films, music.

Literature — e- and audio

According to Aadamsoo, the COVID-19 lockdown has given a boost to many digitization projects that had been in the pipeline for a while but so far with rather low priority. “Estonia’s audiobook market is non-existent. Now we are launching a series of Estonian literature audiobooks. We have used the lockdown to give actors the opportunity to record Estonian literature while their regular work is at a standstill. The first books will be launched in May.”

Creating a comprehensive and accessible e-book library is a more long-term endeavor. “We see an e-library as a kind of human right, a citizen service. Hopefully, all Estonians can access Estonian language texts by the end of 2020 everywhere in the world.” Aadamsoo points out that the 895 libraries across Estonia make up the biggest physical social network, which has great potential to offer services beyond lending books. Libraries have to come up with a new model anyway — it’s not going to be enough to administer shelf space in the future. A library can also become a co-working space if needed and adjust to the new and changing needs of people.

Treasure troves of music and film

Also, Estonian music and films should become digitally accessible as well. We have become accustomed to artists releasing their new albums on Spotify or Soundcloud, the latest films being streamed on platforms, but a vast treasure or music and film heritage is not accessible via modern tools. This is the case for most of Estonian music and films from the 20th century; and the only way to listen to oldies might be to call a radio show on Estonian Public Broadcasting. The archives of ERR hold hundreds of thousands of pieces of Estonian music but they are not accessible on demand. was a first quick fix with a simple technical solution but it is incomprehensible. So, Aadamsoo is working with ERR to extend the access.

Estonian Public Broadcasting opened an online platform called “Jupiter” to stream the Estonian TV and radio archive in April. Aadamsoo hopes to include the content of the film archive by the end of the year: “This is a massive treasure of documentaries and old chronicles. It is very valuable for teaching purposes as a great source of visual material. All the chronicles and black and white documentaries should be made accessible but something like this is hardly a commercial project.”

To address digital development obstacles of cultural institutions, the Year of Digital Culture project has come up with so-called digital residencies or the “hacker-in-residence” concept. Via matching funds, a museum or theatre can engage a developer or designer for a short-term residency to look at some issues with a fresh view and offer solutions that haven’t occurred to permanent staff. One such project is the “smart ticket” developed by the Estonian National Museum (ERM) in Tartu.

In cooperation with HITSA (Information Technology Foundation for Education), the digital culture year is developing a free toolkit for kids to promote digital creativity. “Kids can just as well be involved in the 3D modelling of a skate park for their hometown instead of just consuming online content created by somebody else,” says Aadamsoo.

The lockdown has offered great incentives for the fast development of the digital culture. For Aadamsoo, the question is what remains of all these new approaches after the fog of lockdown lifts.



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Liina Luhats-Ulman

Liina Luhats-Ulman

The tales of Estonian digital culture, that I write down are brought to you by The Estonian Institute and The Year of Digital Culture 2020