How the Banned Books Museum defends free speech

David Hudson 30 June 2022

There are more than 1,500 banned books in US schools alone—and some of the titles may surprise you! The Banned Books Museum is fighting back

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

When Scotsman Joseph Dunnigan opened it at the end of 2020, he couldn’t have predicted how its subject matter would move more sharply into focus.

The notion of book banning might prompt you to think about Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses or the Nazi book burnings in the 1930s. However, the wider issue of censorship has never been more pertinent. 

Estonia’s eastern neighbour, Russia, is heavily censoring the information that its citizens receive about Ukraine. To the west, in parts of the US, right-wing activists are acting to ban books mentioning LGBTQ+ issues and Critical Race Theory from schools. 

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

Life under state censorship

Censored books on display in the Banned Books Museum, TallinnCredit: David Hudson. The Banned Books Museum displays 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 work out what he wanted to do with his life. He says it was here that issues around censorship first became more of a day-to-day issue 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, this was a topic that became a big part of my life when I was there.”

"Compared with ten years ago, online manipulation and propaganda are getting so sophisticated"

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

A new romantic relationship prompted the move to Estonia in 2015. Dunnigan began working on the technical side of the movie business, but “this topic just stayed with me, and at a certain point I decided, ‘OK, now is the time to do something about this.'

“Compared with ten years ago, or even five years ago, online manipulation and propaganda are getting so sophisticated,” he says. “I’ve watched China from the outside, where it’s got really extreme.

"So, I thought, Now is clearly the moment to talk about censorship and fake news and misinformation. And the visitors seem to agree.”

A long list of banned books

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 display illustrates a timeline of libraries that have been burned 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’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), to classics such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963).

"There are some surprising inclusions too, such as Richard Adams’ Watership Down"

More recent works include Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give (2019), which examines issues around police brutality and race relations, regarded by some in the US as unsuitable for school libraries.

Many books banned in Russia and China are also included, with the latter clamping down on works such as the Dalai Lama’s Freedom In Exile (1991).

There are some surprising inclusions too, such as Richard Adams’ Watership Down. This epic 1970s tale of rabbits seeking a new home was banned by some schools for being too traumatising for younger children.

Book burning (and banning) through history

Timeline of burned libraries from 206BC in Banned Books LibraryCredit: David Hudson. The earliest library burning is thought to have taken place in 206BC in Xianyang, China

Dunnigan says visitors have often engaged him in conversation. The display seems to be particularly appreciated by journalists, students, and those in the tech industry. 

“Censorship is never-ending,” he reflects. “It goes hand in hand with the development of books as a technology. The providing of information, through books, and also the restricting of information. You have them both at the same time. And you can see that in the museum.

“I try to have stuff going back as far as possible: pictures on the wall of ancient book burnings, to give a sense that this is something that has existed forever.”

"The technology changes, and the medium changes, but the instinct to suppress runs so deep"

It’s easy to become despondent at the spread of misinformation, and how entire countries are duped into falling into line with their authoritarian regimes. Is it hard for Dunnigan to resist pessimism? 

“Yeah. It is. Especially for me, because I spend all day studying repression, censorship and ongoing persecutions," he tells me. "But from my perspective, there’s not much point being pessimistic. It doesn’t lead to anything.”

He says that simply reminding people of what’s happened in the past, and the feedback he gets in return, gives him some optimism for the future.  

“The technology changes, and the medium changes, but the instinct to suppress runs so deep. It requires us, as a civilization, to make a commitment, to say we’re going to uphold free speech, and we’re going to let people think, and we’re going to let people debate, and we’re going to have faith that people can work things out.

"It’s maybe a little lofty of me, but I see this place as contributing to that.”

Find out more about the Banned Books Museum, Munga 2, 10140 Tallinn, Estonia

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