The Kohtla area as one of the centres of the Ida-Virumaa mining area of north-east Estonia. It is one of Europe’s principal sources of shale oil which was extensively mined in the 20th century and is still being extracted to be used in generating electric power. Mining began in 1916, and production reached a peak in 1980 with an annual output of 31 million tonnes.
The museum is based at a mine that began production in 1937. Shale from shallower deposits was extracted by open-cast working. Visitors are able to go 1 km underground on a train, to explore the working face of the mine, and to eat underground the typical lunch of a mid-20th century miner. On the surface there are buildings where oil-bearing shale was separated from other stones, and towers where it was burned. The museum has a collection of oil paintings of the mines, and a display of equipment includes Esku, the 50-ton-heavy bucket of a very large mechanical excavator used in open-cast workings.
The landscape of the area is characterised by huge dumps of waste shale, of the kind that are called bings in the area of central Scotland which once produced shale oil.