Policy Ambition vs. Local Reality: Kihnu’s Heritage Practices, Estonia

Theme: Public Sector Policies and Its Impact on the Rural Communities

by Ms. Siyun Wu
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Beijing, China and lives in Leiden, Netherlands
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
PhD candidate in the Music Heritage and Citizenship in Estonia, Leiden University


©Silvia Soide


Over time, the notions of ‘heritage’ which originally sprang from European cultural backgrounds and have been highlighting on material authenticity, aesthetic qualities, historical and artistic values are nowadays shared worldwide. International heritage organizations disseminating these notions, providing soft laws through guidelines, declarations and conventions, are meanwhile influencing the way heritage is currently defined and managed on the national and local levels. Through a case study on local heritage practices of Kihnu island, a UNESCO World Heritage cultural space in Estonia, this paper aims to peek into some local realities encountering heritage policies and globalizing guidelines. How is a rural community impacted and what challenges are there?

Heritage and Cultural Policies in Estonia: From Folk Culture to Intangible Cultural Heritage

Estonia often proudly calls themselves as a Singing Nation. From national song and dance festivals to the widespread popularity of folk singing and instrumental music coming hand in hand with folk dance, costumes and social and public activities around the country, folk music traditions have been highlighted as essential parts of Estonian national culture. The new concept of intangible cultural heritage (vaimne kultuuripärand) was first introduced to the Estonian language when the country adopted the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003. Estonia starts to develop its official narratives and preservation framework of heritage on the basis of the Convention when the country joined in 2006. Folk music traditions have started to be preserved, managed and promoted as one signature national heritage.

Heritage in Estonia is managed under the main effort of the state, research and memory institutions (museums, libraries, archives, different media including television, radio and Internet platforms), as well as experts and specialists on folk culture, the majority of which as folklorists who have been playing a significant role in the development of folk singing and music traditions as national culture historically and in carrying on shaping official language and cultural policies, public perception and social practices on cultural traditions, which are today gradually referred to as cultural heritage (Rüütel, 2002; Kuutma & Kästik, 2014; Kuutma, 2016; Pawłusz, 2017). With the Ministry of Culture taking the overall responsibility of heritage, in 2002, the National Heritage Board and a cultural heritage department were established. The Folk Culture Centre supporting the survival and evolution of Estonian folk culture in the process of developing and carrying out the cultural policy acts as the main state body in the field of intangible heritage. The intangible heritage department in the center works as a bridge between different levels, upholding and introducing the UNESCO Convention in Estonia while managing the Estonian national inventory of ICH, advising the communities and administers and organizing awareness-raising and training activities. The Folk Culture Centre and umbrella organizations of national folk culture associations, regional and professional organizations (mainly in a form of cultural space programs which work for the preservation and continuation of heritage culture and its regional living communities as a whole) work coordinately and consist as the main partners in the heritage field. Significantly in Estonia, the development and maintenance of Estonian ICH inventory and preservation of ICH in Estonia are upheld essentially by the long-established and systematic maintenance and management system of folk culture.

Preservation and Continuation through Practices and Innovation

In consistency, the National Cultural Policy (Ministry of Culture, 2014) providing principles on cultural field and guiding ICH practices values preservation of folk tradition and heritage as one key in achieving cultural continuity and national unity of the Estonia state, and as essential in the many-and-interlinked-faceted cultural life that has significant impact on the well-being of the Estonian people, the quality of the local living environment, and the international competitiveness of the country.

Distinctively, the policy views in harmony between the preservation and continuation of culture on the one hand, and the innovative-ness and openness of culture on the other. Besides researching, storing, and transferring cultural memory, innovation and creativity for the continuation and development of heritage culture are particularly encouraged. First, enhancement of visibility and appreciation of Estonian culture and ICH in the public sphere is aimed with special stress on evolvement of information technology and digital society, the national project on building digital folklore archive and heritage database for example. Active engagements and initiative practices from citizens, the new generation in particular, are valued as another substantial way to keep heritage alive. Public events and activities, celebrations and festivals are thus highlighted in state support for creating a kind of cultural promotion and transmission that is through social actions and life practices. Further on, the policy supports the innovative connections of heritage culture with new social environment and various developmental needs, with creative industries and entrepreneurship as two frontiers. Developmental activities and local entrepreneurship draw from heritage and heritage technology, folk culture events and cultural tourism are supported with extra value. While UNESCO is advocating “safeguarding without freezing” with involvement of the community (UNESCO, 2019), Estonia is perhaps taking a more proactive approach that is aiming at springing up creative initiations and active practices from citizens and communities, encouraging transformation and changes for the interests of future generations, taking heritage as recourse and a motivator for advancement and development. Then how are such policies and principles translated in the regional cultural spaces, in communities and citizens? What potentialities and impacts do they can provoke on the ground?

Kihnu Violin Festival: through Music Learning and Sharing

When the golden and red colors started to catch on in the forest with the autumn breeze at the beginning of October in 2019, the UNESCO listed World Heritage island Kihnu welcomed their special guests, the first time from Kaustinen in Finland, to their 9th Violin Festival. At this last big public event the Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation organised outside of the community in the year, the Kihnu community would host the folk music group Näppärit and together on the island they would have two days of workshops learning each other’s music, share skills and knowledge, present and know about local traditions and culture of their own home, and finally prepare and perform a final concert together. Main participants are the more than 60 Kihnu and Kaustinen youths and children. Under the instructions and lead of music teachers from both groups, many of whom are also parts of the management and organization team and have families and relatives playing in the groups, participants presented and learned Kihnu and Kaustinen folk tunes and songs with their own instruments, made arrangements and practiced together.

At the final public concert, the workshop participants performed songs and tunes from their own repertoires and those they learned within two days from each other. Although not perfect and still needed some instant hints and reminders from the teachers, standing side by side in each of their own dresses, the young generations from Kihnu and Kaustinen tried to play the tunes at one beat. Note by note, word by word, they are connected through music they learn and share despite the distance and the shortness of time they know of each other. The concert attracted many Kihnu residents and local news (Kuusik, 2019) from the Pärnu county, some other Kihnu people who were working in the continent during the week. There were also visitors visiting the island by coincidence and some people come specially for their interests in folk and traditional music. At the after performances from an invited Estonian folk music band, which also has special connections and long-term friendship with the Kihnu community through music, two communities played along, danced in hands, partied with joys and laughs.

(Kihnu 9th Violin Festival, Photo by Silvia Soide, 2019)

Through Heritage Practices and Experiences

For the organizers of both local groups, the aspirations on this event are more than music learning and sharing. It’s also about heritage matters. Just like how they found out about the existence of each other through the heritage platform, both groups are connected with folk music heritage with special local fiddle music, and their common interests and years of effort on preserving and developing with their cultural heritage, on their own hands, in their own ways, for their own community interest. Through this meeting, both groups wish to share and learn from each other’s understandings and experiences on heritage practices, from their applications to heritage inventory and UNESCO list, and during these processes, their encounters with heritage policies and frameworks at different levels, from their own countries to the European and global ones.

“It is really nice to know that we are not alone. Not the only one struggling and trying this long and so hard to find ways to preserve our music heritage and pass it on to our children. It hasn’t been easy particularly when we just started. We are not professional musicians and it is not our aims neither to become ones nor to train our children into one. It is different from formal music school, musicians from the cities looking for artistic inspiration. So we didn’t have any money to do this. The (local) government also didn’t consider this as heritage preservation. This is not like buildings and castles that need money to repair. We were only given a bit of money as social interest group doing some cultural activities.”

“Some of us are (part-time) music teachers teaching children in the community. Most are just interested in music. We wish to carry this musical experience we enjoy as part of our normal people life. To share this joy with our children while hoping that they can learn about their lives, their surroundings, their neighbors, the place and culture of where they grow up around.”

“After doing this after years and going through our struggles and explorations, we started to grow and get more recognition. The idea of ICH opens our world and really helps us to break through. There are some other groups like us, interested in the same thing. We thought this is great. We want to share our experiences. We were very lost when we started trying to apply to the heritage list too. There is a lot to learn about ICH and figure out what we can do from here and after. So we reach out. We want to connect, build more conversations and learn from each other.” (Private conversation, 2019)[1]

The two rural communities wished to and eventually achieved to connect with each other. This group conversation and new fosterage of friendship could not happen, at least this soon, without the idea of heritage and the global initiation, dissemination, and implementation on ICH preservation. ICH is new to both communities that have been caring about their music tradition and community life deeply and yet have been having struggles of finding a place within their own societies and finding a way to survive. They were not the mainstream nor the recognized, and they are relatively still not. But they are eager to act. And ICH policies and systems in both countries have given them a chance and the UNESCO has provided such a platform. Among many heritage cases in the global world, this is a treasure. Heritage becomes, to some extents, a new way and space for people having the same interests and shared struggles to connect and group up. Heritage is a chance, and “a new world” as one organizer described, but questions remain. For individual citizens and communities, how can they grab it? What to do about it if people do have the opportunity to take this chance? And once people are taking on this new journey, how can they go stead and far?

The Rural Strive

With conversations with the founder of Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation Mare Mätas and many active members in the Kihnu community, I get to know that the community has experienced many changes, and many things could have been much less optimistic as it seems today ever since they started working towards to be and after becoming a UNESCO heritage.

Recognition and Self-Appreciation

Started from the early folklorists and intellectuals in the country who had the rare access to the island during the Soviet occupation and started to notice the uniqueness of the island, and then from scholars and heritage specialists who started to work coordinately with the community following the heritage policies on implementing the UNESCO convention and building national heritage inventory of Estonia, and later the growing amount of urban visitors from around the country and the world, Kihnu has been receiving applauding attention and recognitions from outside. Under the interactions with increasing interest and recognition from the outside, while maintaining their lifestyle through time, the community is also led to know, view, value and expect themselves in renewed ways.

“When we applied for UNESCO, my foundation conducted many researches on our culture. Then we our first museum. I started the foundation because I always think it is important to keep our traditions and our lifestyle. I was a history teacher. We had quite some people still completely lived in a very traditional lifestyle. But most of them were getting old and farming and fishing, doing everything yourself is very hard. Many people (on the island) didn’t even know much about how many rich culture and special traditions we have as Kihnu people. It is important to protect our culture. It is particularly important for the young generation to know. They grow up in very different times. But I don’t want my children to know nothing. … Now they will dress our Kihnu skirts on festivals, even day in and day out. Don’t need me to remind them anymore. They know it’s special they have this now.” (Mätas, 2018)[2]

With members who have been carrying on practicing and eager to be the caretaker of their cultural traditions, the interests and recognition from outside trigger and help maintaining such local interest and effort within Kihnu community. Besides from the exploration and re-examination on their own culture, Kihnu people, particularly the young generation, who are now living and growing with more influences from the globalizing Estonia and having a tendency to have less interest and pride in their rural background and keeping cultural traditions, are gradually developing a sense of self-recognition and self-appreciation. They build more confidence about their Kihnu identity, more care on their home and land, more motivation in learning and practicing local traditions, and more interest in the community’s future.

Community Spirit

This search of self in the bottom-up heritage practicing process as encouraged in the Estonian cultural policy means more than the searching on heritage knowledge and skill of the home community and on the emotional bounded self-esteem and self-appreciation in Kihnu’s experience. It also leads a spring of community spirit that evolve on heritage and development matters in the community. It puts the question of “Who I am” to “What I can do for myself, while perhaps also for my heritage and my community” to individuals.

When speaking about the music school in the foundation, which has the Violin Festival as part of the program, Mätas told me about her initiation:

When my children started to go to school and have music class, I noticed how little time they have just in there. Kihnu has long and rich music tradition but little was taught in their school. And to learn well, they need more instructions, more practices. But there were no resources on the island. Not every family has the awareness and the money, skill, and time to support the children to learn an instrument. So I decided to start the music school, so my children and Kihnu children can learn without the need of going to the mainland.” (Mätas, 2019)[3]

For the owner of Rock City guesthouse and restaurant, when I asked about the wall signs with Kihnu map and introduction on Kihnu lighthouse and the sea area, Kihnu fishing and catering, they told me how they started their business after Kihnu became a heritage space and started to attract tourists and how happy they were able to rebuild their family connection with their homeland.

Although we do like living on the island better, we left to live in Pärnu because the children need to go to school. So we still mainly live there. But after more people started to come to Kihnu, we thought we could reuse this land and house my grandparents have here. I have been hearing a lot of these things about fishing and boats from my grandpa when I was a kid. It is nice now I could put them (local history information published by Kihnu museum and Kihnu Sea Organization) on the wall and show other people. And many tourists are interested in them.

This white fish dish is very traditional and typical in Kihnu. It is my favorite. We got the fresh fish from our fishermen. We are families or friends. Of course, it’s better to have fish from them. Why go to buy them from Pärnu (fish farm). They are never as good. We also hire cook here. Not easy actually. But our chef now cooks the best taste I like. We know the best with fish dishes. You can have a burger or steak if you like. Some tourists do. But if you are asking what are Kihnu’s traditional food. Then I will definitely recommend you to try this. My son will also ask for this every time when we come back now.” (Private conversation, 2019)

With or without direct intention on contributing to local heritage preservation and promotion, people’s activities are influenced and further impacting upon the idea of Kihnu heritage and the connections people have with heritage and with each other in the community. Like the new Kihnu generation who are now learning music in the Violin Festival and the music school uphold by the foundation, knowing and eating the white fish dish made by different members in the community, with the chance of and changes brought and supported by the heritage regime, new connections, activities and memories that are beholding the Kihnu community are made and renewed continually.

What About the Future?

To be kept alive, intangible cultural heritage must be relevant to the community, continuously recreated and transmitted from one generation to another (UNESCO, 2019). To keep the heritage in practice and keep the practice running in long term are also the biggest challenge the Kihnu community is facing. As aimed by the Estonian cultural policy and as can be seen from the Kihnu achievement, the active engagement from the community bottom-up is one key factor fostering new circle that helps stemming new connections and transitions. But how to sustain and invite broader this active engagement from the citizens?

After doing this for almost 20 years, I myself am getting old and tired as well. I should step back and let the younger generation to take on with the future. They know more about the world and new technology. They have their interests and have more new ideas. Every time when we meetings and conferences (about heritage preservation), I said, it’s always our old ladies sitting around the table. We need new, young blood.” (Mäta, 2019)[4]

The current achievement on heritage preservation and local development in Kihnu could not be possible without the long-term creative exploration, hard work, persistence and devotion of active members in the community.

This is very hard. It’s nice now in the summer some girls are helping me. But a lot of time I have to do everything myself to organize an event. Contacting guests, arranging locations and supplies, like doing the driving this time (Kihnu Violin Festival), to sticking posts around the island. I am getting used to it after years but it will be hard for whom is only helping occasionally. ” (Private conversation, 2019)[5]

Bringing a smile to the foundation team, some younger Kihnu generation are not only participating events and activities but also helping with the organization this year. But the future of handing over and engaging the young generation is still very unclear and uncertain in the view of the foundation.

“They have seen how things generally work on the island and they know the community. It is good to let them know and learn more too even if they don’t. But they have their own dreams, their own lives. We can’t keep them there all the time. At least they need to go out (of the island) to go to school now.” (Private meeting, 2019)[6]

Not just the regular pillar members in the foundation organization team but the Kihnu community as a whole seem to share a common view that the Näppärit group also agree on, and that is the caretaker and manager of heritage matters need to be a “real Kihnu member”, someone local in a sense that not necessarily from the community, but know and care about the community, live in and with the community.

It’s very different if someone is living here, having their family and their lives and circle, not just their summer house or their business here. Their stays are welcomed and their voices and needs are important too of course. But they care less on the long-term things. The real development of the island.” (Private meeting, 2019)[7]

Like music skills, it takes more than one day to cultivate active citizens and train successors of local heritage management. One old saying in Chinese goes “It’s easy to conquer an empire but it’s hard to keep on the throne.” Preparing a heritage element for inscription took many efforts for many communities and nation states, but perhaps what is harder for all of us in the global world is to create a sustainable future for heritage and the community practicing on preserving the heritage. And as what Kihnu community and the Näppärit group are doing, building more diverse, in-depth and long-term communication on heritage and also on heritage preservation practices can be the first step to explore a possible future.


[1] Private group conversion in October 2019, Kihnu.

[2] Conversation with Mare Mätas, June 2018, Kihnu.

[3] Conversation with Mare Mätas, October 2019, Kihnu.

[4] Conversation with Mare Mätas, June 2019, Kihnu.

[5] Conversation with one member working in Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation, June 2019, Kihnu.

[6] Private meeting of Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation, August 2019, Kihnu.

[7] Private meeting of Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation, August 2019, Kihnu.


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  • UNESCO. (2019). Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from UNESCO: https://ich.unesco.org/en/faq-00021
  • UNESCO. (2019). Safeguarding without freezing. Retrieved from UNESCO: https://ich.unesco.org/en/safeguarding-00012

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