Tallinn’s NUKU Puppet Museum is Creepy as F*ck

I like puppets. I like their colourful costumes and emotive faces. I like the magic that happens when a seasoned puppeteer (or even a passable amateur) interacts with and animates a piece of wood or clay or plaster or cloth. One minute you are looking at a toy–the next, a living object. I like the blurring of the line between the mind/personality of the puppeteer and that of the puppet. It can be creepy, I suppose, but deliciously so. [Note – my admiration of puppets excludes ventriloquist dummies, as a strange veneer of exploitation has always soured that particular puppet-puppeteer relationship for me. The dummies are also scary-looking]. Over the years, I’ve taken an amateur’s interest in puppets and their history (specifically Punch and Judy) and, well, I just think they’re neat.

Three weeks ago, on a sunny afternoon in Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn,  my husband and I were wandering the twisting cobblestone lanes of the Old Town and having a lovely time. On the corner of Nunne and Lai, just out of the shadow of the hilltop area of Toompea, we found a cheery yellow building with a cheery orange sign–the NUKU Theatre and Puppet Museum. We thought about going in, in fact, I even popped my head in to check out the price of admission (5 € for an adult ticket), but for some reason we decided to move on and continue enjoying the exteriors of these medieval buildings, gorgeous in the pale Baltic sunshine, rather than enter the comparative gloom of their interiors. Travelling is like that–full of small choices about what to see or not to see, the gentle violence that occurs as you pursue one possibility and eliminate another. And so it goes.

But fate apparently had a hand to play in favour of the NUKU Museum. Although the sun had set the night before in a pink and cloudless sky (we know because we watched it from our hotel’s 8th-floor relaxation centre), the next morning rain was hurtling onto the city, scuttling our plans to visit the Estonian Open Air Museum (and so it goes). Instead of braving the rains and the open skies of an outdoor museum, we popped into a nearby cinema to watch Mad Max: Fury Road (English with Estonian/Russian subtitles; it was great), and by the time the film was over, the rain had stopped and it was after 2:00 p.m.; too late, we felt, to see the Open Air Museum (which probably would have been extremely muddy after a morning of rain anyways), but certainly enough time to revisit the charming medieval Old Town we had enjoyed so much the day before.

And so that’s how we found ourselves once again under the walls of Toompea, once again on the corner of Nunne and Lai. The Puppet Museum beckoned. Why not?, we thought, so we went inside the yellow building with the orange NUKU sign, paid our admission, and slipped through a narrow hall behind the cashier.

After taking us by an immense and empty cloakroom, red stickers placed on the floor directed us through the dim and empty lobby of the NUKU theatre, where a huge model of the purple dragon from Shrek (I assume from a previous production of Shrek: The Musical) was displayed. Though its website refers to the many interactive exhibits at the museum (both electronic and human), I think we must have been visiting during an off-period. What I mean to say is, on the whole, the museum was empty. The only other visitors we saw that day were a tired looking couple dragging their disappointed toddler away from the light-up buttons he’d been playing with, and of the few NUKU personnel we saw, most appeared to be working for the theatre, not the museum, and their eyes passed right over us as if we were little more than shadows.

Speaking of shadows, the museum was dark. Really dark. After the lobby, the red dots directed us downstairs and into what I assume are the medieval cellars that run beneath the theatre. There, dim blue lights displayed an example of shadow puppetry (the silhouette of an elaborate city on one side of a screen is revealed on the other to be just a collection of carefully arranged junk), and also a “wishing” well, which according to the signage, was part of the original structure of the building. A slit in the well’s plexiglass top allowed visitors drop in coins to make wishes, which TC and I did (in hindsight, perhaps I should have wished to be visiting a less creepy museum, but it’s too late for that now).

Farther along the passage (and again, in what was almost total darkness) there was a small screen mounted in the wall and surrounded by an array of a hundred or so buttons (these were the buttons the toddler was so upset about leaving, and this was the only interactive display that actually worked). Pressing a button would display a video clip of Estonian puppets/puppeteers at work (usually on Estonian children’s television shows, and usually juxtaposed with shots of the bewildered-looking faces of the children in the studio audience). We watched three or so clips and when we stopped, an animation of the NUKU logo appeared, beseeching us in his little Estonian voice to continue pressing buttons. I hope this display was motion-activated, as I hate to think of the poor NUKU logo all alone under the theatre, trapped in his small screen, calling to absent visitors in the dark.

At the end of this passage we found an adequately-lit stairwell (hooray!) taking us above ground into a small atrium (housing a couple of large puppets on display), and presenting us with a choice: go right, and see displays of puppets from different countries and also puppets used in shows throughout the theatre’s history, or go straight, through a black doorway and down a winding staircase into what a small NUKU sign called the “Cellar of Horrors: The sanctuary of unhappy, evil and scary puppets.” A sign like that is more like a dare than a warning–besides, what could possibly be scary about a children’s museum in the middle of the afternoon?

As we descended towards the Cellar, the staircase twisted down into the darkness as long strips of black fabric, hung lower and lower the farther we went, brushed the tops of our heads and arms. We stooped to avoid them and, at the bottom of the stairs, found ourselves in a low vaulted room with a stone pillar in the middle, dimly lit by small halogen lamps and by a single shaft of sunlight that entered the room through a small window near the ceiling (it looked as though this window was actually supposed to be blocked by a piece of cardboard, as the only other window was, but luckily for us this cardboard had fallen off). Though the room was small, the darkness and the pillar meant we could not see all of it at once, and so we did walk slowly around the circumference of the space to see which unhappy, evil and scary puppets had made their home here.

As we stepped out of the stairwell, we heard a whirring and clicking noise to our left, and a light began to flash. It was a three-dimensional zoetrope, motion-activated and fairly sensitive. A circular glass cabinet contained luminescent green stick puppets, dancing as the zoetrope spun and its strobe flashed, occasionally appearing to be missing arms or heads. The machine would begin again every time we moved, even on the other side of the room, and it scared me every time.

Many of the inhabitants of the Cellar were the expected goblins, vampires, and devils. They were small and cartoon-ish, propped up in little coffins, and they didn’t seem that scary. What I found more creepy were the puppets that looked perfectly normal–a sad-looking old woman, a giant face leaning against the wall, a little postman who, on closer inspection, had his feet on the wrong way, but seemed otherwise very ordinary. What are they doing there, I wondered, What have they done? I don’t think I saw every puppet–they crowded in the shadows, tucked into corners and along the walls, hard to see on first glance. Were they there before? I wondered. I really didn’t know. With each step the whirring and clicking and flashing of the zoetrope would begin again, confusing our vision, and as we took no pictures in the Cellar of Horrors, I can’t even say with certainty what was down there.

What I do know is that once we decided to leave the Cellar, we did it fairly quickly. I wouldn’t necessarily say I “ran” back up the stairs, with no concern for the fate of TC, who was following, but it would probably be an accurate statement. I’m nearly 30 years old but I’m not ashamed of not wanting to spend a great deal of time in a sanctuary for unhappy, evil, and scary puppets, especially one where a ghostly machine full of faceless green stick-men sits in the dark, waiting for an unsuspecting visitor to walk by so it can dance its ghoulish dance.

The rest of the museum, being empty of visitors and staff, could not shake the eerie feeling that had crept along our spines down in the catacombs. Life-sized dolls perched on windowsills and around corners. Non-working display screens flashed at us, or made futile clicking noises as we walked by. Everywhere there were eyes peering from behind glass panes. Everywhere seemed abandoned, like a room where children used to play but don’t anymore.

And then it stopped. The museum just stopped. There weren’t any more rooms or anymore passages. To leave we had to go back through the display halls we’d just been in, past the doorway to the Cellar of Horrors (gaping like an open sore in the stillness of the atrium), down the other staircase, back into the tunnels with the buttons and the wishing well and the shadow display, up the stairs again, past the dragon and the empty cloakroom and the girl at her cash register and–phew! Into the sunlight.

I’ve no doubt that on a different day, when it is full of children and their parents and staff leading the puppet-making workshops and holding small puppet shows, and the puppets in their cases have an audience that appreciates them, the NUKU Museum is a neat and magical place. But when it is empty, and dark, and just waiting, the NUKU Puppet Museum is creepy as f*ck.

The following are some of TC’s photos from our visit and his captions, which I found quite amusing:

NUKUCellarSign

We went to a bizarre puppet museum. There were some extremely unsettling puppets in the “Cellar of Horrors”. I took no photos there. The following puppets somehow did not qualify for “The sanctuary of unhappy, evil and scary puppets.”

not terrifying at all

Not terrifying at all.

not scary in the least

Not scary in the least.

Nope, not evil.

Nope, not evil.

[Lauren’s note: this last one is Punch, one of my favourite puppets actually.]

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Baltic update: Riga and Tallinn

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Sveiki! I feel that a post about my Eastern European travels is long overdue, however, though opportunities for writing have presented themselves, I have found that I have been either too jet lagged (last week) or having too much fun visiting with family (this week) to make productive use of them. Downtime is an important part of travelling, and one that I have usually used to journal or blog about my experiences, but this time I simply haven’t found myself alone often enough to really be able to frame my thoughts or articulate my impressions.

What I can say now is that the three days TC and I spent in Tallinn (the capital city of Estonia) last week were incredible. It was the only leg of the trip we were going to be on our own so we splurged and stayed at the luxuriously comfortable Nordic Hotel Forum a stone’s throw away from Tallinn’s Old City. Since we were there both in mid-May and also mid-week, there weren’t very many tourists around and the winding streets crowded with medieval houses unfolded as if they were just waiting for us to turn the corner before revealing yet another delightful point of view. Tallinn’s Old Town is very compact (the boundary, for the most part, is clearly marked by the old city wall), and very consistent (there are very few modern buildings to be found once you pass between the guard towers of the old city gate and venture up into the city). We got fairly lucky with the weather and generally speaking, the small area we saw of Tallinn seemed clean, bright, relaxing, and romantic. Just what a vacation should be!

The Latvia leg of our trip has been vastly different. It’s not that Riga isn’t beautiful or romantic (what with its art-nouveau edifices and cobblestone streets), but returning to a place you lived in nearly 20 years ago is not the same as experiencing a new city for the first time. Instead of simply going out to see what we could see, my family and I have been going out to see if we could see what we saw in 1995. Sometimes we found it, sometimes we couldn’t. Overall I am left with the sensation that what I had taken with me 20 years ago were parts of Riga–snapshots of this building or that monument. I don’t recognize the city as a whole and I don’t really know my way around it. Nostalgia is great but when it competes with new experience it’s just…different. Which Riga is better, the one I’ve spent the past week enjoying, the one that is much safer and in in much better repair than the Riga of 1995, or the city I remember, which was both bigger and smaller, more frightening but more marvellous? How is it that I can be disappointed to find something the same, proof that it was real after all?