Seaplane Harbour museum
A modern, award-winning, recent addition to Tallinn
's portfolio of attractions. The Seaplane Harbour Museum is housed in a huge three-domed hangar. The vast cavernous hall inside contains amongst its exhibits a whole submarine, surely the prime exhibit, as well as various other navy/maritime-themed objects and is designed to a high modern standard with plenty of interactive elements.
There is also a large open-air part with more vessels and vehicles, some military, but also civilian. Only a few parts of all this are actually especially noteworthy from a dark-tourism perspective, but it is still very much worth checking this museum out.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The seaplane hangars were built between 1912 and 1917 and are considered to be the world's first large-scale shell structure of reinforced concrete. It was part of the Russian
Tsarist empire's Peter the Great Naval Fortress.
It again fell into the hands of the Russians from 1940/1944 when Estonia
became part of the USSR
and the harbour was part of the Soviet Baltic Fleet bases. During that time the hangars ceased to serve their original purpose.
After many years of disuse and neglect the structure had become increasingly dilapidated by the time the country regained its independence. But in the 2000s, plans for refurbishing the hangars and making it part of a harbour museum were developed. Reconstruction work started in 2010 and was completed in 2012; the museum opened in May 2012.
In 2013 the museum won the Europa Nostra Grand Prix award, an EU prize for cultural heritage preservation, followed by a special commendation in 2014 in the even more prestigious European Museum of the Year Awards presented each year by the Council of Europe.
One of the museum's prime attractions, the British
-built submarine Lembit
, commissioned in 1934 and launched in 1936, was the oldest submarine still afloat before it was lifted out of the water in 2011 to become part of the museum's indoor exhibition. It is the only surviving pre-WWII
Estonian navy vessel still intact. Although it is only intact owing to extensive refurbishment work, which also put the sub back into a state like it would have been in the 1930s.
An even older star attraction of the museum, the steam-powered icebreaker Suur Tõll, was launched in 1914 and is still afloat today! It is moored in the basin just outside the museum's main building, and forms part of its open-air exhibition of large exhibits. At the time of my visit it was undergoing internal refurbishment, but was scheduled to be reopened to the general public by late June 2014.
What there is to see: Possibly the best bit of this site is the building itself – not so much from the outside, perhaps (although the huge hangar doors are quite impressive), but certainly inside. Once you've purchased your ticket and made your way through the electronic gate a vast cavern opens up in front of you. The hangar consists of three connected domed halls of concrete forming one long space of gigantic dimensions.
This is further enhanced by the lighting. The three skylights at the top of the domes (with giant ceiling fans hanging down from them) only let in minimal daylight, and the artificial lighting is quite gloomy, and mostly in blue hues. I found the roomy feeling inside this structure quite fascinating. The impression you get has been likened to that of entering the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
… and the comparison isn't that far off the mark (head-to-head I would still say the Hagia Sophia
wins hands down). Do take some time just letting this impression of such an immense indoor space sink in properly!
The actual museum exhibition has a tough job following this up, but in some respects it lives up to the challenge – in others less so. One aspect that won the museum much praise is its interactiveness. With your ticket you get an electronic chip card with which you can save files from numerous interactive screens by having the contents sent to your email address. This is a cool idea for those who do not necessarily want to read all that much while in the museum but rather want to follow up the finer details later from the comfort of their own home (or wherever). However, it wasn't quite so easy to get the system to work properly. As it turned out it did not work with my card, but it did with my wife's, even through we tried to do exactly the same with them. I suppose that's just the vagaries of any complex computer system … mysterious failures and bugs are to be expected. The idea, though, is indeed exemplary.
The museum is on two to three levels, meaning: there is a walkway that swings round the length of the hall at some 15 feet (5 metres) or so above the ground. At the far end there is a kind of bridge that soars high up following the curve of the dome above – but this you can only cross as part of a guided tour, otherwise it is closed to the public. Along the eastern side of the hall the walkway is broken up and leads into different platforms at different heights. So there are some steps to take up and down at several points.
Thematically, there isn't actually that much in this museum that would firmly fall under the heading of dark tourism. There is lots of maritime stuff that will only interest the really dedicated seafaring-aficionado, such as dozens of buoys of all shapes, sea mines, little boats (I found the mini hovercraft quite cute, though) and the replica Short 184 seaplane hanging from the ceiling (to justify the site's name, I presume). Not all that exciting, to be honest.
It gets a bit better with the big guns lining the eastern side of the hall, especially the really big naval guns. Models show the inner workings of these heavy machines and on the walls behind them some rather surreal paintings give it a fictional, almost fantasy-style twist.
The prime attraction of the museum, however, has to be the “Lembit
” submarine (see also under background
). This sits propped up on the ground level and is by far the largest of the indoor exhibits. Indeed for a pre-WWII
sub it is really quite big, at nearly 60 metres length and a beam of 7.5 metres.
The best bit is that you can enter the submarine and explore it freely from the inside. I've read that at times it can get so crowded that you have to queue up, but when I was there (1 May) there were no queues and at times you could even have a section in the sub all to yourself (cool for photography! – see below
You actually enter the submarine through an original hatch (unlike many other museum subs that have special entrance doors cut into them – cf. for instance U-434
). The hatch is a little narrow and the ladder leading down is steep, but for most visitors it should be perfectly negotiable.
Once inside, you get the impression that it is actually quite spacious for a submarine of its age. Even the round hatches between the different sections felt much wider than I've encountered in other museum subs. The officers' mess is actually really quite plush with its red velvet upholstering too. However, none of this ultimately detracts from the typically claustrophobic aura of a submarine interior – it still has that air of a steel coffin. The torpedo room at the bow is quite a sight to behold, as are all those mysterious controls and wheels and pipes … including those twisting around the sub's loo!
Back outside there is more on the topic of submarines, mostly in the form of schematic drawings and scale models of submarines throughout the ages, up to the present day. One poignant item here is the model of the “Kursk”, the Russian
super-sub that so tragically sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000 (cf. Murmansk
Also still in the submarine section is an obviously fake, Beatles-y “Yellow Submarine”-type contraption that actually functions as a small cinema room inside. The film shown (with English subtitles) is a rather childish introduction to the topic of submariners' adventures – and indeed it seems to be aimed at kids only. The same will mostly be true for the pool with remote-controlled model boats that kids of all ages can steer, or the flight and anti-aircraft gun simulators.
Attached to the museum is also a cafe (which gets good reviews – but I didn't go) and a fairly large shop. The latter, however, sells more souvenirs and toys rather than anything of special interest to the dark tourist.
Also part of the museum is an expansive open-air section behind the main hall. Here you can find a number of speedboats, minesweepers, etc. propped up on land. To go inside you still have to show your ticket; the outside area is freely accessible. Still afloat and moored in the harbour basin at the far end of the complex is the Suur Tõll steam-powered icebreaker, allegedly another one of the museum's top highlights. However, at the time of my visit the vessel was still undergoing refurbishment and could not be entered, so I can't judge it for myself.
At the time of my visit there was also an additional outdoor exhibition of Soviet-era armoured vehicles, trucks, field kitchens and other land-based military gear on display, which you could see for free, in a car park opposite the museum's main entrance. These exhibits were from the Estonian War Museum (see under Tallinn
), but it appears that this was only a temporary display, scheduled to end on 5 October. What will happen to the vehicles after that I do not know.
All in all, even though there isn't that much for the dark tourist especially, this is a highly recommended museum. The vast hangar hall alone is truly breathtaking and has to be seen to be believed. Add to that the submarine and big weaponry and it should be very much worth your while.
Finally, a note for photography
: taking good pictures inside the hangar is a very tricky task. For one thing the gloomy dark requires either high sensitivity levels (with the risk of resulting in grainy images) or, much better, long exposure times, i.e. you need to rest the camera in a fixed position – without a tripod). Moreover, as you get a weird mix of light sources, it is extremely difficult to get the white balance right, as there is daylight coming in from the domes' skylight tops that mixes with incandescent light and differently coloured other artificial light sources with a lot of blue ambient light and bright yellows and reds in between. I can normally more or less rely on my DSLR's auto white balance, or, if not, then at least I am generally able to tweak it manually to produce acceptable results. Not in this case – images using camera-internal white balance were all either far too blue or too red and over-saturated overall. So for once I had to resort to shooting everything in RAW and sort the white balance and colours out later at the computer – and that took a long while to process! Bear this in mind when viewing the picture gallery below!
a bit out of the city centre, to the north-west of Tallinn
's Old Town, the ferry port and Linnahall (see Soviet Tallinn
Access and costs:
a 20 minute walk from Tallinn
's Old Town, but not hard to get to; not exactly cheap but still quite adequately priced for what you get.
To get to the museum you can take a taxi, one of those hop-on-hop-off tourist sightseeing buses … or simply walk: from the northern end of the Old Town, past the old power station (itself undergoing refurbishment at the time of my visit to become some sort of art centre), to the waterfront and then along the so-called “kultuurikilomeeter” ('cultural kilometre') which leads all the way along the waterfront, past Patarei prison
to the museum car park. Once there, the huge hangars housing the museum are impossible to miss. Walking it takes about 20 minutes each way.
daily from 10 a.m. To 7 p.m. between May and September, closed on Mondays the rest of the year (and, some sources say, only from 11 a.m.); at times of particular public interest, e.g. during the Titanic
artefact exhibition (November 2013 to March 2014), opening times may be extended.
Admission: 10 EUR (students/children 5 EUR, under-eight-year-olds free), combination ticket with the Old Town maritime museum in the Fat Margaret tower are 14 EUR
depends very much on individual visitors' interest in all things maritime. If everything about Estonia
's seafaring legacy fascinates you, then you can spend a whole day in here. Most visitors, however, will be more selective, but even then you should allocate at least between an hour and half to two hours for this museum. Only those who want to target solely the bits of particular interest for dark tourism could make do with probably under one hour.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Tallinn
– the nearest other dark attraction in the city is right next door to the Seaplane Harbour: Patarei prison
Thematically linked to the Seaplane Harbour is the older part of the maritime museum house in the Fat Margaret tower at the northern end of the Old Town; and just outside the city walls is the memorial to the Estonia
, the ferry that sank in 1994 in Estonia's worst-ever sea disaster (see under Tallinn
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Tallinn
- Seaplane Harbour 01 - old hangar, award-winningly restored
- Seaplane Harbour 02 - inside
- Seaplane Harbour 03 - the submarine is the star piece
- Seaplane Harbour 04 - but there is lots more
- Seaplane Harbour 05 - mini hovercraft
- Seaplane Harbour 06 - mines
- Seaplane Harbour 07 - lots of buoys
- Seaplane Harbour 08 - oh buoy
- Seaplane Harbour 09 - smiling buoy
- Seaplane Harbour 10 - curved roof
- Seaplane Harbour 11 - U-boat and guns
- Seaplane Harbour 12 - guns
- Seaplane Harbour 13 - guns galore
- Seaplane Harbour 14 - guns explained
- Seaplane Harbour 15 - inner workings
- Seaplane Harbour 16 - fictitious inner workings
- Seaplane Harbour 17 - guns and doodles
- Seaplane Harbour 18 - seeing through
- Seaplane Harbour 19 - staring up the barrel of a gun
- Seaplane Harbour 20 - pointing at the sub
- Seaplane Harbour 21 - bow
- Seaplane Harbour 22 - stern
- Seaplane Harbour 23 - propeller
- Seaplane Harbour 24 - on deck
- Seaplane Harbour 25 - staring down into the U-boat
- Seaplane Harbour 26 - torpedo pipes
- Seaplane Harbour 27 - rather plush officers mess
- Seaplane Harbour 28 - engine room
- Seaplane Harbour 29 - hatch
- Seaplane Harbour 30 - toilet
- Seaplane Harbour 31 - lots of pipes, dials and wheels
- Seaplane Harbour 32 - looking up
- Seaplane Harbour 33 - golden sub
- Seaplane Harbour 34 - tragic sub
- Seaplane Harbour 35 - yes, it is the Kursk
- Seaplane Harbour 36 - back to the front of the main hall
- Seaplane Harbour 37 - outside - note the giant hangar doors
- Seaplane Harbour 38 - outdoor exhibits
- Seaplane Harbour 39 - speed boat
- Seaplane Harbour 40 - stripped down
- Seaplane Harbour 41 - icebreaker undergoing refurbishment
- Seaplane Harbour 42 - vehicle park
- Seaplane Harbour 43 - Soviet-era APCs
- Seaplane Harbour 44 - behind Partarei prison