The craftsmen’s guilds of Tallinn are a familiar topic for many of us thanks to the secondary education but the everyday life and material culture of these organizations are still poorly addressed. Aside from their creation, little attention has been paid to their working arrangements. The exhibition on the pendant shields of Tallinn craftsmen in the 17th-19th century at the Niguliste Museum introduces in many ways an unknown topic in the culture of Tallinn craftsmen. Both the theme and the structure of the exhibition provide an excitingly multidisciplinary overview of the field and the era, which has been regrettably often addressed through the aesthetic perspective only. The curators of the exhibition are Anu Mänd, Senior Researcher at the University of Tallinn, and Tarmo Saaret, Director of the Niguliste Museum.
If silver as a material is primarily associated with decorativeness and wealth, then Mänd and Saaret have shown that the pendant shields were mainly used as visual communication tools and therefore, in the modern sense, they are not only craft but also graphic design. The main goal of the shield was to express the master’s field of craft, name and the year of becoming a master. In addition, the shield also features an emblem of the town and the marking of the goldsmith who made the shield. Mostly, the decoration has focused on illustrating the profession. The simplest emblems are typically the craftsmen’s tools, but in some cases, the approach is more allegorical, for example, a savage on a shield of a tailor. But there are different approaches, for example, a name-based approach: in 1796, a tailor A. F. Vogel chose a bird, more precisely a geese, to decorate his shield.
A separate showcase also features a timeline that demonstrates the stylistic developments over the course of the three centuries. If the baroque shields still stand out for their complex and lush ornaments, then the examples of the second half of the 19th century are almost modernist. Instead of a decor, the main focus is on delivering information in a simple and easily understandable manner. In addition, various details refer to evolving globalism and the growing interest in history and foreign cultures – for example, there are pyramids and Celtic decors. The role of the text in delivering information is increasing, referring to the higher level of general education.
From the point of view of the cultural context, the exhibition also illustrates well the Estonian place in the German cultural space. We do not find references to the influences of the Swedish or the Russian empire on the shields; both names and styling are strongly German influenced. Of the more complex objects of the exhibition, the two welcoming goblets of three are brought from Germany. Cultural impact and trade relations are not always dependent on the current political situation, especially during the early modern period.
All in all, this is an excellent exhibition that looks at the topic of the pendant shields from multiple angles, from a cultural, aesthetic, as well as historical point of view. The exhibition does not only vary the stylistics of the displayed shields but also how they are made. Some of the works are slightly clumsy and almost naive, thus illustrating not only the best moments in the field but the diversity of the representatives of the various professions. A couple of words should also be said about the permanent exposition of the Niguliste Museum: the curators have cleverly referred to the exhibition of Sittow currently at Kumu Art Museum, adding eye-catching information cubes to the items that are related to Sittow. Those who have already visited the exhibition will find interesting additional information from Niguliste, for others, it will work as a promotion of the exhibition among other things.