By Andris Straumanis, George Mason University
Coming into downtown Rīga, Latvia, across the Stone Bridge (Akmens tilts), it’s hard not to notice the dark rectangle that is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The museum, which in Latvian has the much simpler name Okupācijas muzejs, captures and presents the history of the country from 1940-1991.
The museum is one of about 200 in Latvia that I am cataloguing during a virtual internship with the Smithsonian Institution’s Cultural Rescue Initiative. The work is part of the graduate certificate program in digital public humanities at George Mason University. This semester I am concentrating on cultural repositories in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
All three nations this year are marking the centenaries of their declarations of independence in 1918 from the Russian Empire. However, their freedom has not been continuous. The countries were occupied in 1940 by the Soviet Union, then by Nazi Germany in 1941, and then again beginning in 1944 by the Soviets. Not until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 did the Baltics restore independence.
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was founded in 1993 and housed in the former Latvian Red Riflemen Memorial Museum. From its inception, it has involved supporters from both Latvia and from the post-World War II exile community who have donated both money and artifacts. As of the beginning of 2017, according to the museum, its collections included about 60,000 items. The artifacts tell the story of Latvia under both Soviet and Nazi rule, of the deportations of thousands of Latvian residents to Siberia, of the flow of refugees during World War II, and of the repressions and resistance that followed for five decades.
The main museum building is closed for a long-awaited reconstruction that will increase its exhibition and storage space. The extension was designed by Latvian-American architect Gunnar Birkerts, who died in 2017. In the meantime, a scaled-down exhibition can be viewed at Raiņa bulvāris 7, which once housed the U.S. Embassy in Rīga. The museum also runs an exhibit on the history of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, at the infamous “Corner House” in Rīga where interrogations once took place.
In addition to Latvia’s museum, Estonia has the Museum of the Occupations (Okupatsioonide muuseum) and Lithuania has its Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, which includes the Museum of Genocide Victims.