How the Museum of Forbidden Books defends freedom of expression

There are over 1,500 books banned in US schools alone, and some titles might surprise you! The Museum of Forbidden Books strikes back

The Estonian capital of Tallinn is home to a bewildering number of small museums. A relatively recent addition that strikes a chord with visitors is the Forbidden Books Museum.

When Scotsman Joseph Dunnigan opened it at the end of 2020, he could not have predicted how sharper his subject matter would become.

The notion of a book ban might make you think of Salman Rushdie The satanic verses or the Nazi book burnings in the 1930s. However, the broader issue of censorship has never been more relevant.

Estonia’s eastern neighbor, Russia, heavily censors the information its citizens receive about Ukraine. Out west, in parts of the United States, right-wing activists are moving to ban books mentioning LGBTQ+ issues and critical race theory from schools.

In recent years, Tallinn has earned a reputation as Europe’s Silicon Valley. The new suppression wars are being waged on social media, with deep fake tech and phantom bans raising more complex questions about the nature of censorship.

Credit: David Hudson. The Banned Books Museum showcases dozens of titles that have been banned around the world

Dunnigan is originally from Dundee. He left his home country in 2011 for China, both to study Chinese and to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He says it was here that censorship issues became a daily problem for him.

“I became friends with a few different members of different ethnic minority groups and became very concerned about what was happening to them,” he says. “So it was a subject that became a big part of my life when I was there.”

“Compared to a decade ago, online manipulation and propaganda are becoming so sophisticated”

After Dunnigan left China, he moved to Taiwan. It shares the same cultural baggage but is a considerably more democratic society. Dunnigan says he was struck by the stark contrast between the two.

A new romantic relationship prompted the move to Estonia in 2015. Dunnigan started working on the technical side of the film industry, but “that topic stuck with me, and at some point I decided, ‘OK, it’s time to do something about it.

“Compared to a decade or even five years ago, online manipulation and propaganda are becoming so sophisticated,” he says. “I watched China from the outside, where it’s really extreme.

“So I thought, This is clearly the time to talk about censorship, fake news and disinformation. And visitors seem to agree.

His museum is a small two-room space. It offers dozens of books that have been banned at one time or another, along with an explanation why.

A wall exhibit illustrates a timeline of libraries that have been burned down through the ages, dating back to the destruction of the Xianyang State Archives in 206 BC.

Books in the collection range from infamous publications, such as DH Lawrence Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), to classics like Sylvia Plath The glass bell (1963).

“There are also surprising inclusions, like Watership Down by Richard Adams”

More recent works include Angie Thomas’ Hate U Give (2019), which examines issues related to police brutality and race relations, considered by some in the United States to be inappropriate for school libraries.

Many books banned in Russia and China are also included, with the latter cracking down on works such as the Dalai Lama freedom in exile (1991).

There are also some surprising inclusions, like that of Richard Adams boat down. This epic 1970s story about rabbits looking for a new home has been banned by some schools as too traumatic for young children.

Timeline of burned libraries from 206 BC in the Library of Forbidden BooksCredit: David Hudson. The first library fire is thought to have taken place in 206 BC in Xianyang, China

Dunnigan says visitors often engaged him in conversation. The display seems to be particularly popular with journalists, students, and tech industry players.

“The censorship is endless,” he thinks. “It goes hand in hand with the development of the book as a technology. The provision of information, through books, as well as the restriction of information. You have them both at the same time. And you can see it at the museum.

“I try to have things that go back as far as possible: pictures on the wall of old burnt books, to make it look like it’s something that’s been there forever.”

“The technology changes and the medium changes, but the instinct for suppression is so deep”

It’s easy to get discouraged by the spread of misinformation and how entire countries are being duped into aligning themselves with their authoritarian regimes. Is it difficult for Dunnigan to resist pessimism?

“Yeah. It is. Especially for me, because I spend all day studying the ongoing repression, censorship and persecution,” he tells me. “being pessimistic. It leads nowhere.”

He says that just reminding people of what has happened in the past, and the feedback he receives in return, gives him some optimism for the future.

“Technology changes and the medium changes, but the suppression instinct runs so deep. It forces us as a civilization to commit, to say we’re going to respect free speech, and we’re going to let people thinking, and we’re going to let people argue, and we’re going to have faith that people can work things out.

“It may be a little haughty on my part, but I consider this place to be part of it.”

Learn more about the Forbidden Books Museum, Munga 2, 10140 Tallinn, Estonia

Read more: 7 books to read about the abortion debate

Read more: Britain’s quirkiest museums

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