In the field of heritage conservation, the General Principles of Cultural Policy up to 2020 (see chapter 1.1) state that:
- appreciation of cultural heritage as a whole is a national priority — tangible and intangible heritage are not separate from each other and protection of cultural monuments has expanded to the appreciation of the environment and context;
- other important aspects include specifying the strategy and measures for protecting cultural heritage (what, why, and how is it protected), an inventory and analysis of the list of monuments, and on the basis of the results of the analysis, an update of the lists and the respective legislation;
- state supports the owners of the monuments to ensure the conservation of important objects;
- state creates opportunities for presenting cultural monuments, as a result of which awareness of heritage conservation is raised within society;
- state recognises the role of NGOs in heritage conservation and encourages co-operation with the private sector in the conservation, maintenance, and presentation of national heritage;
- in setting and realising the objectives of heritage conservation, it is important to increase the cohesion of the different areas (incl. museums, environmental protection, spatial planning) and the relevant ministries and establishments.
The heritage field is closely related to museums, about which the General Principles state the following:
- the objective of museums is to develop in line with the contemporary expectations and needs of an institution of memory which, besides the accumulation, maintenance and researching of local cultural heritage would contribute to education, while at the same time being attractive for visitors from in and beyond Estonia. In addition to historic heritage, the state considers it important that natural heritage is researched and presented to the public by appreciating the activities of natural museums, botanical gardens, and zoos;
- based on the principle of the integrity of cultural heritage, the state facilitates close cooperation between and coordinated action of museums, heritage conservation, and research institutions;
- state supports the interpretation of the knowledge that has been accumulated in a museum to bring it to public use, through, amongst other methods, contemporary e-solutions and by digitalising the collections;
- educational programmes at museums are aligned with national curricula and contribute to reaching set study objectives. All school students are ensured the opportunity to visit Estonian museums. In each school year, at least one day is designated for museum visits;
- when designing the network of museums, the state takes into account the sustainability and diversity of the institutions.
During the last decade, the protection of cultural heritage has moved from single objects to whole areas – building complexes, town quarters and settlements. To protect the environment the state has established twelve heritage conservation areas, these mostly include the historic centres of Estonian cities.
Some Estonian objects of cultural heritage are internationally renowned. The historic centre of Tallinn and the Struve Geodetic Arc are included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The year 2013 was declared by Ministry of Culture as a cultural heritage year. That same year, the Ministry of Culture, in cooperation with representatives from the field of heritage conservation, started to draft an amendment to the Heritage Conservation Act. During the negotiations regarding the strategy for the state budget in the spring of 2017, the government agreed to finance additionally the implementation of the heritage conservation reform with a sum of EUR 1,4 million annually starting in 2019. This amount will be paid out as direct grants to owners that wish to renovate heritage properties.
In February 2019, the Parliamentpassed the new Heritage Conservation Act. The new legislation balances the rights and obligations of the state with those of the owners of cultural monuments, creating for the first time a compensation system for monument owners. As of May 2019, the activities of the National Heritage Board (NHB) will include both heritage conservation and museum fields. It is the competence centre in the field of cultural heritage and it also deals with museums and their collections. NHB is the only state authority to handle heritage conservation. The tasks of NHB include supervision, advice for the owners of monuments, support for renovation, and maintenance of a national cultural heritage registry. NHB has employees in all 15 counties and major towns. Information on monuments is available on the web registry register.muinas.ee.
NHB supports the popularisation of the museum field as well, its strategical development, activation of cooperation between museums and training of museum workers – all through the supporting programme “Development of the cultural heritage field”.
The state provides funding for international heritage projects through the support programme “Estonian Culture in the World”. Projects are also funded by the Cultural Endowment of Estonia and Estonian Folk Culture Centre.
The Heritage Conservation Council operates under the Ministry of Culture and makes proposals on the matters related to the Heritage Conservation Act and helps form heritage conservation policies.
The Ministry of Culture helps to implement the European Landscape Convention in Estonia regarding the aspects of cultural heritage and built environment.
With the heritage reform, the state started to pay greater attention to consultation and prevention activities. The competence of heritage conservation inspectors will be focused on consulting and NHB will help owners become knowledgeable clients. More flexibility will be introduced into restoration and construction activities. The special conditions of heritage conservation, which are currently commissioned by the owners of monuments, will hereafter be provided by NHB based on research studies.
As a result of the reform, the state will become more active as a devoted partner who gets owners involved, concerning ca 135 000 owners of objects under heritage protection (incl. natural and legal persons). In addition to owners, the change will affect entrepreneurs and licensed specialists.
Estonia has joined a number of international conventions, the principles of which form the foundation of heritage conservation work. These conventions are UNESCO, First and Second Protocol to the Hague Convention, European Council conventions. Currently, preparations are ongoing to join the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.
Heritage conservation concerns a lot of people and therefore NGOs are also very actively involved in the field. The oldest and best known is the Estonian Heritage Conservation Society with an active membership of nearly one thousand and many local branches.
Since 2003, the Ministry of Culture has tried to appraise the heritage of different cultural areas and societies, i.e. Estonian cultural heritage regions. A cultural region is a live community with a common identity, whose activities could be classified as intangible cultural heritage. To this effect, cultural region programmes have been a priority for the Ministry of Culture in recent years. Through regional support programmes the state helps with the preservation and continuation of cultural heritage and local society efforts in the field. Cultural region programmes are significant as they generally support communities on the periphery, where the intangible heritage has been preserved better.
The Estonian Folk Culture Centre manages seven cultural region support programmes:
- Setomaa culture programme (region south of Lake Peipus and inhabited by the Seto people, the historic range of Setomaa is located on territories of present-day Estonia and Russia)
- Kihnu Island cultural space programme
- Cultural heritage environment programme of Estonian islands
- Mulgimaa culture programme (an ethnographic and linguistic area in southern part of Estonia)
- Old Võru County culture programme
- Shore of Lake Peipus (the area partly inhabited by Old Believers’ descendants who had emigrated from Russian Empire) culture programme
- Viru County heritage culture programme