The Estonian National Museum is a glass, concrete and steel slope that rises out of the runway at Raadi, a former Soviet air base near the city of Tartu. On a tour of the museum, which opened last year, the guide explained that its design incorporates several features of Estonia’s history. It bridges a stream that once ran through the estate of a Baltic German baron, part of the aristocracy that ruled over a largely Estonian-speaking population for centuries. The former air base is evidence of domination by Moscow: two hundred years under the Russian Empire, a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1939, then reoccupation by the Soviet Union until its break-up in 1991. And the new building, opened several months before Estonia took up the presidency of the Council of the EU, suggests how the country would like to be seen today: bright, open, European, on the up.

But if we wanted to know about the occupations and the war, the guide said, we should go to Tallinn, where they had museums to tell that story. Here, the exhibits were about ‘ordinary people’, though that doesn’t mean they’re apolitical. The permanent collection is divided into two galleries: the first, which tells the story of everyday life in Estonia from prehistoric times until today, is on the ground floor, illuminated by plenty of natural light, and runs in a straight, unbroken line, displaying objects chronologically; from ancient tools retrieved from bogs, to medieval weapons, to the chair that the inventor of Skype sat in. Visitors can handle many of the objects – books and samizdat in the reconstructed study of a dissident Estonian intellectual, for instance – and the exhibits are accompanied by playful captions. But the display makes an argument nonetheless: Estonia is a nation with a continuous history, even if the nation-state is relatively recent.

The second gallery is below ground, with dark walls and twisting corridors. Most of its contents aren’t Estonian. At the entrance, the guide showed us an animated map of Eurasia, marking out areas where speakers of the Finno-Ugric language group live. There are 18 Finno-Ugric ‘nations’, she explained, of which only three – Estonia, Hungary and Finland – have a state, and what she called ‘political rights’. For the rest, which are spread out around the Baltic, or across the Urals and Siberia, ‘Estonia sees itself as an ambassador’. To illustrate the connection, she pressed a button and the map became a language tree, showing how the word for ‘fish’ – kala in Estonian and Finnish, hal in Hungarian – is similar in all the Finno-Ugric languages.

Some of the terms the guide used seemed odd to me. Is a language group necessarily the same thing as a nation? Do speakers of a language lack political rights if they are citizens of a larger, multi-lingual state? Who gets to decide what is a national language and what is a dialect? I asked the guide if she knew who decided that there were 18 Finno-Ugric nations, and when. ‘Oh, it was at least eighty years ago,’ she replied, a little irritably, before continuing the tour.

There were rooms for each of the different Finno-Ugric regions, showing how people there traditionally lived. Each room was designed to evoke a different environment – a forest silhouetted on the walls, a fan blowing a cold breeze, a reconstructed wooden sauna – and there were mannequins of men and women wearing ‘traditional’ clothes. I wondered how much they were here to teach us about distant peoples, and how much to suggest there was something primordial about the modern Estonian nation. The figures stood inert in the underground gallery as we were encouraged to feel the embroidery on their shirts. None of the mannequins had faces.