With this interview, the thinktank begins a series of conversations titled “Thirty years of independent museology”.
We ourselves have experienced barley half of this period. Our interviewees, whose careers began in the 1980s or even earlier, have at least triple that amount of experience in the sector.
This generation which experienced the change in the country’s political course has directly experienced the liberation of Latvia’s museums from ideological dictates, and laid the foundations for an independent museology, both administratively and in terms of content. This series of discussions will look at those events and examine how museum professionals see the transition with the benefit of hindsight.
Although they may not be as fundamental as those of the 1990s, changes in society are still ongoing, and that is the background to our conversations. It may be that this is a very suitable time for this long-planned series, which addresses the issue of the contemporary history of the sector.
Raivis Sīmansons, PhD in Museum Studies
Ineta Zelča Sīmansone: How would you describe the situation in Latvia’s museums in the late 1970s and early 1980s?
Jānis Garjāns: My career in museums began while I was still a student. Back in 1976, I started working at the Andrejs Upītis Memorial Museum as a junior research assistant. But my road to museums began at high school. I graduated from Auseklis High School in Aloja, and I chose to write my major essays on the poet Auseklis, so on my own initiative I visited various museums and met people. I fell in love with museums as special, mysterious places. By accident or design, I ended up in the Museum of Andrejs Upītis. I must admit that my experience as a museum worker in the late 19870s and early 1980s was different to the overall situation in Latvia’s museums at the time, as the Upītis museum was a new one, opened after the writer’s death in 1973. At the time, we were preparing for Upītis’ centenary in 1977, involving an extensive array of events and concluding in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. Rather than being a branch of the Rainis Museum of Literature and Art History, as most writers’ memorial museums were at the time, Upīts had stipulated in his will that he didn’t want to be associated in any way with a museum connected with the name of Rainis. And that was respected. So, we were working there, and my entry into museum society came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the sector began to organise non-governmentally. The Latvian Museums’ Society was founded in 1989. The society’s founding congress was held in what is today the Riga Jewish Community Centre, and it was a lavish affair, with the folk group “Skandinieki” singing and a pastor giving a sermon – those sorts of evets were held by practically every sector in those days. Before this there was a preparatory phase, going back to 1989, maybe 1988, when we met at the Museum of Riga’s History and Navigation in Klāra Radziņa’s office. There were colleagues from Riga museums, as well as from Kuldīga, Gulbene, Talsi, Dobele, Rundāle and elsewhere. The statutes were drafted. The founding congress was held in September 1989. A newspaper specially printed for this event has been preserved – it was called “Muzejnieks” (The Museum Worker). The introduction spoke about how museums wanted to define their role in the changes sweeping society, as well as sounding a self-critical note that museums had long been ideological institutions serving the regime. There was also discussion of how museum collection had allegedly become deformed. In any case, there was a desire for a new direction. That was the museum people’s position, how we presented ourselves to society. That was the beginning.
IZS: Why was it held in the Jewish Community hall?
JG: In The large hall – there wasn’t a museum there yet. There was a political education institute or something like that. The space was available.
IZS: At the meetings hosted by Klāra Radziņa, you decided to found the society, and then at the congress a broad spectrum of museums were invited to join?
JG: Yes, the founding event was a big one. The hall was packed. There are photographs of people in the hall and the speakers. We also have the congress programme. I also spoke at the congress. I had just finished writing my dissertation at the Faculty of Languages, and museum research work seemed very important to me. How did it all continue from there? I recall we went on a trip lasting several days around Talsi District, forging contacts with colleagues, discovering how museums live, what they need, how to help them. Gunārs Dzenis from the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum of Latvia was the society’s first chairman. One idea has stuck in my mind. Gunārs always stressed that there are no large or small museums – every museum is important, and we have no right to judge its importance based on its size. As someone from a small museum, this seemed very positive. But we didn’t really get to grips as to what needed to be done. Remember, there soon followed the Barricades and Coup of 1991. Then in 1992, we understood that systemic changes were needed, and it was decided to reorganise the society, whose statutes stipulated that only individuals could be members. It was important that the body represent the views of institutions, i.e. the museums. On 9 June 1992, the Association of Latvian Museums was founded, whose representatives had the right to express the views of museums.
IZS: Going back to the very beginning. Was the decision to establish the society the initiative of the museum people or was it a signal from the Ministry of Culture?
JG: A good question. But one that I can’t answer. Anyway, I don’t remember feeling any underwater currents or instructions during the meetings and discussions. Maybe I was too wet behind the ears to notice. At the founding congress of the society, there was a representative from the Ministry of Culture present, that’s true. But I don’t think there was anything underhand about the founding of the society, or that it was meant as a jab against someone else. I think it was part of an overall process in which people from various sectors, in this case the museums, were searching for ways to self-organise.
IZS: Klāra Radziņa was the initiator of the meetings before the congress, but you also mentioned museums in Gulbene and Talsi. In your view, what were the criteria for inviting museums to these meetings? The most active players?
JG: Apparently so. I have a pretty good idea how I got there. I was passionate about it. How the others were assembled, I don’t know.
IZS: How did the first elections to the board take place? You mentioned Gunārs Dzenis, the chairman. Did the museum people put him forward for the board?
JG: The fact that there were elections at the congress, I remember that. They walked along the rows of seats and collected ballot slips in a box. And so the board came into being. But what the exact mechanism was – whether candidates were nominated beforehand or on the spot, I don’t recall. There may have been minutes of the meeting kept, but where they are now, I don’t know. I recall that Juris Alksnis was very active, back then he was deputy director of the Firefighting Museum. And from Gulbene Museum there was Irīna Zeibārte’s husband Juris, who later had a military career. Talsi Museum was represented by its director Anna Rasa. There were also representatives from other museums and regions, but I don’t recall how they were selected.
IZS: And Klāra Radziņa was the initiator of this process from the start?
JG: The discussions and organisational work took place at the Museum of Riga’s History and Navigation.
IZS: The Association of Latvian Museums was founded in 1992, and the biggest change was that it had institutional members?
JG: Yes. There was a strong conviction that we need a Law on Museums, and that the views of museums should be taken into account in drafting it. This led to the creation of an organisation uniting most of Latvia’s museums.
IZS: Did you look toward any foreign models or was it intuitive?
JG: To found the association? I don’t think so. Back then, on Ludzas iela in Riga, where the Latvian Academy of Culture is now, there was a research and qualification raising institute subordinated to the Ministry of Culture. Astra Kalniņa, who was responsible for museums, worked there. I recall that it was Astra who suggested forming the association. When we got stuck into the Law on Museums, then we looked at experiences in other countries, particularly the Danish museum system.
IZS: Returning briefly to the founding of the association. At the time, the Ministry of Culture was responsible for the museums sector…
JG: Inta Bušmane. There was a time when several ministry officials worked with the museums. I recall from my days at the Upītis Museum that every year we had to go and give a report to the ministry, and the museum’s director Margarita Miglāne would take me along, because for a few years I was the head of the Skrīveri branch. There was a section in the ministry – I assume that in addition to museums, it also worked with other cultural heritage sectors. This structure was headed by Olga Klints. In those days, she could be encountered at the annual receptions at Rundāle Museum. When Rundāle was being established, Olga Klints gave great support to Imants Lancmanis and his successors. Inta Bušmane worked in this section of the ministry, as well as Māris Deģis for a period, and possibly someone else too. In the early 1990s, when the economic and political situation had changed, the people at the museum connected with museums were Inta Bušmane and Gundega Cēbere, who was more responsible for visual arts and art museums.
IZS: You founded the Association of Latvian Museums, and then elected the board?
JG: This period is quite well documented, as the first activities of the association were associated with our belief that we must create ways to share information, and one of the tools to achieve this was the monthly publication “Muzeju Vēstnesis” (The Museums Messenger). We wrote the articles, compiled them, then made as many photocopies as required, then we wrote out the addresses by hand and sent them to all the museums by mail. We wrote in the first issue of “Muzeju Vēstnesis” that the first council meeting of the Association of Latvian Museums was held on 9 June 1992. So we had a council with a wide range of members – Romāns Pussars from the Rainis Museum of Literature and Art History, Anita Meinarte from the Latvian Museum of History, Ruta Vainovska from the Pauls Stradiņš Medical History Museum, Mārtiņš Kuplais from the Open Air Ethnographic Museum, Inta Baumane from Jūrmala Museum, Andrejs Dābols from the Ģederts Eliass Jelgava History and Art Museum, Jānis Garjāns from the Andrejs Upītis Memorial Museum, Ērika Kalniņa from Turaida Museum Reserve, Lija Preiss from the Latvian Melioration Museum, Indra Vīlistere from Valmiera Museum, Baiba Šulca from Bauska Museum, Klāra Radziņa from the Museum of Riga’s History and Navigation, Ināra Šķipsna from the Latvian Nature Museum, Aija Fleija from the Latvian War Museum, and Valentīns Cirsis from Jēkabpils Regional Studies and Art Museum. And from this council, a board was elected. The members of the first board were Klāra Radziņa, Anita Meinarte, Aija Fleija, Ērika Kalniņa and Jānis Garjāns (chairman).
IZS: How were the members of the board appointed?
JG: They were probably elected at the foundation meeting.
IZS: What was the role of the council?
JG: Considering that from 1992 to 1997 I was consistently re-elected as chairman, I know what the board did, but I’m not sure what role the council had. But initially, that was the structure – a council and board.
IZS: And the association’s main task was drafting the Law on Museums?
JG: As you know, the first Law on Museums was adopted by the Saeima in mid-1997. It took us five years to reach that point. The official initiator of the draft law was the Ministry of Culture, in the person of Inta Bušmane. A group of people was assembled to aid with the drafting, including lawyer Māra Frankevica. And the law was finally adopted in 1997.
IZS: At which point did the centre of action in the museums sector shift from the association to the Ministry of Culture?
JG: I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the role of the association by saying that it started to decide everything relating to Latvian museums. The Ministry of Culture did its job. We presented the association’s initiatives, they listened to us, and we felt like we were on the same team. When the provisions of the Law on Museums began to be felt in real life, which was around the beginning of 1998, the State Museums Administration was established under the Ministry of Culture. The law stipulated that the State Museums Administration was a mediator between the sector, i.e. museums, and the ministry, as a policy developer. The administration was tasked with implementing state cultural policy in real life.
IZS: Then there was no discontinuity? The Law on Museums was adopted, and several people from the association moved over to the board?
JG: Yes, several people from the association went to work at the board, as board members or on various projects. But this transfer from the association to the board was highly conditional, as there were no paid (fulltime) positions at the association. We all worked in one of the museums. When we began working at the board, we knew the situation in the sector, and we had contacts with colleagues in the museums, which helped. And so the Board of Museums operated until the crisis of 2008/2009, when the entire museums sector was restructured by saving money, optimising structures and liquidating small bodies. And at that time, management of the museums sector was returned to the Ministry of Culture.
IZS: Returning briefly to the 1990s – looking at the association’s archives a while ago, particularly the period from 1992 to 1997, one sees your very active further education work, and you brought in foreign museums specialists and forged links with various international bodies. It was a time of very intensive learning for the sector.
JG: The association’s objective was firstly, to bring unity to the sector through the exchange of information, i.e. “Muzeju Vēstnesis”, and the museums address book, and a major plan was to publish a guidebook for tourists about Latvia’s museums, funded by the Prince Bernhard Nature Fund (the Netherlands). The second priority was providing educational opportunities for museum workers.
In 1995/1996, when Agrita Ozola was the chair of ICOM [International Council of Museums] (Latvia’s ICOM national committee had already been established), there was a surge in energy. Agrita was also a member of the ICOM Reginal Museums International Committee, and the chair of this committee was Margriet Lestraden. They became good friends. At that time, the MATRA programme was operating in the Netherlands, which funded educational projects in various parts of the world. Latvia’s ICOM and Margriet began an educational project for the heads of Latvia’s museums. This was the first significant project, under which three groups of museum workers spent week-long sessions addressing modern museum management issues. The first group studied in Engure, while the next two met in Jūrmala. Margriet herself gave lectures on museum management, and she also invited Christina Savage, Jowa Imre Kis-Jovak, and Jylonka Daas. The lecturers were experts in their field, and there was enormous interest from the museums. This programme covered around 100 Latvian museum workers, and the final lecture was held as a public event open to all Latvian museum workers. These courses were our first further education event, and they inspired many Latvian museum workers to think about how museums could work better and how they work in Europe.
IZS: In the 1990s, Margriet was a key figure in Latvian museum life, especially when it came to further education.
JG: Absolutely. Margriet was then a very active head of the ICOM Regional Museums International Committee, and this committee focussed on small or regional museums. She had already established her private Lestraden Museum Consultancy. Margriet took a deep interest in Latvia’s museums and worked with enormous enthusiasm. It was tough, as everything was in English, including the first museum management courses. How many of Latvia’s museum workers were capable at that time of communicating for a whole week in English? Astrīda Rogule interpreted all the time. Margriet was fascinated by the passion of Latvia’s museum people. Earlier, Agrita Ozola had taken her to many museums. Margrieta had an interesting adventure in Balvi. Today, Balvi Museum is a respectable institution with a Dd studio exposition, but back then it was housed in a lifesaving hut by the lake. The exposition was amateurish with little room for development, but Margriet sensed a strong desire to grow and to develop the museum. And she loved that.
IZS: This wasn’t the only educational project organised by the association?
JG: It is worth mentioning the project “School and museum” implemented in 1996/1997 under thee Soros Foundation programme “Changes in education”. The initiator of this project was Dace Neiburga (Melbārde). She worked in the Latvian War Museum, and before that she had graduated from the Latvian Academy of Culture, writing her master’s thesis on museum pedagogy. During the project period, she became head of the Ministry of Education and Science State Youth Initiative Centre. Dace proposed that such a project be initiated. It ran for several years, and it examined the role of museums in the education system, creating a functional system for cooperation between schools and museums. Una Sedleniece (Rainis Museum of Literature and Art History), Vita Ozoliņa (Museums of Foreign Art), Inese Kaire (A. Upītis Memorial Museum), Inese Bule (Latvian History Museum), and Arnis Moldans-Greiškans (Riga Commerce School history teacher) worked in project management. The project included a conference for teachers and museum workers, a major international conference with museum educators from many countries, a museum education programme competition in which the museums presented their proposals for school pupils to the committee, and the first courses for museum educators. In 1997, the “Museology Library” published the book “Muzeju izglītojošais darbs” (The Educational Role of Museums), which includes both translated materials and our own writings. Another important question addressed by this project was – what kind of education does a museum worker require, and how could an education system for the sector be established?
I have to mention the time at one of our meetings in 1993 when someone from the Ministry of Culture informed us that a museology school had been established at Brno University in the Czech Republic – the International Summer School of Museology [ISSOM]. I started going to English lessons and looking for funding. In the summer of 1993, I went to Brno. The summer school lasted five weeks, and it was an extensive course in museology headed by Zbyněk Zbyslav Stránský. The guest lecturers included leading figures from the ICOM Museology International Committee: Vinoš Sofka, Martin Schärer, Peter van Mensch, Mathilde Bellaigue and others, all then-current museology theorists. The student group was large and colourful, with 30 participants from various countries, from Scandinavia to Africa (including five people funded by UNESCO who were setting up a Nubian museum in their country). In Brno, I also met colleagues from neighbouring countries – Katrin Savomäg from the Estonian Maritime Museum and Romanas Senapėdis from Lithuania’s Ministry of Culture. I recall that we were on an excursion to Vienna, and we visited some museums in Moravia. To this day I remember the museum dedicated to the teacher Jan Komensky [Pedagogické muzeum Jana Amose Komenského], not because even then in the 1990s the museum was using computers and other modern technologies, but because of the excellent exhibition design, which explained the insights and approach to teaching of Komensky in an imaginative way. This made a big impression on me. Back in Latvia, I told everyone about this school, and there was a long article in “Padomju Jaunatnē” (Soviet Youth). Brno University organised these courses every year, and other museum workers from Latvia began travelling to ISSOM, about ten colleagues, some for one course, others for several. The first course was on general museology, then there was one on working with collections, and a third focussing on museum communication. I have completed all three courses. I even have a certificate from Brno University affirming that I am welcome to enrol in a doctoral studies programme. My understanding of the importance of theory in everything we do in museums comes to a large extent from the Brno Museology School. After Anita Jirgensone also completed these courses, we decided to translate Z. Stransky’s “An Introduction to Museology” into Latvian. This became the first volume in the “Museology Library” which we began in the association and later continued under a Baltic Society for the Advancement of Museology project.
IZS: After attending the Brno school, did you realise you wanted to create a museology master’s programme?
JG: The awareness that the museum sector needs professionalism, knowledge and education has always been there. Before the museum society and association, there were always opportunities for further education (in the Soviet times). But as the situation changed, many things were reappraised, and opportunities for museum staff to improve their qualifications were lost. For some time, I advocated setting up such a facility at the Latvian Museum of History, but the museum was cagey, because it feared it would have to pay for this out of its own budget, which would mean cutting funding for some other programmes. A chronic lack of funding was a factor throughout the period of transition, and only in recent years have staff salary levels finally made it onto the political agenda.
IZS: Did you plan on establishing a sort of museology institute at the Museum of History?
JG: Not an institute, rather a department or methodological centre. During the association period, we tried to improve educational opportunities for museum workers, and we spoke to the universities about academic-level education. We went with Agrita Ozola to the University of Latvia’s Faculty of History, but at that time the university was very sceptical about the idea. Although the concept of having museums as a subdiscipline of history in certain courses had been considered, they didn’t see a future in our idea for cooperation. The Latvian Academy of Culture had been recently established. So we met with Pēteris Laķis, and he had a different attitude. They listened supportively but told us we would have to do all the work ourselves. Which we did. But we quickly realised that setting up a programme was one thing, but who would give the lectures? For academic studies, simply regurgitating one’s prior experience is not enough. Examining the possibilities for studies, we decided in Leicester in the UK. We approached the British Council, who gave us their support in sending a museum specialist to study in Leicester. Anda Vilka won the competition, being selected over several other museum workers to go and study in Leicester.
IZS: Was there a competition in Latvia?
JG: Yes. The British Council funded the studies in Leicester. But we were aware that academic education alone wouldn’t solve all our problems. We knew we needed a multi-level museology education system; the highest academic rung was a master’s degree, but there needs to be further education too. And here was the Board of Museums with its competence and resources. Then there was the informal education level, where any NGO or museum could propose initiatives. And in addition, everything available through international cooperation.
IZS: So you sent Anda Vilks full time and Astrīda Rogule as an external student to Leicester with the idea they would become lecturers in a new museology masters programme?
JG: Yes. Anda was supposed to be the cornerstone of the Latvian Academy of Culture’s Museology Programme. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long, because she worked in Cēsis, and the academy couldn’t offer her enough to interest her in working full time. The group of students was small, just as many as there were budget-funded places. Although there was considerable interest, museum staff couldn’t afford to pay the tuition. Anda tried to do both things for a while, working in Cēsis and at the academy, but in the end her enthusiasm and patience waned. Astrīda studied in Leicester later on.
IZS: In which year did Latvia join ICOM?
JG: In 1993. The international museum community was very interested in processes in Latvia. Soon after the establishment of Latvia’s national ICOM committee, ICOM Deputy Chairman Vinoš Sofka visited all three Baltic States. ICOM leaders Manus Brinkman and Jacques Perot] took part in conferences and events we organised. There was particular interest in Latvia after we adopted the Law on Museums. Then we were invited on trips to explain the law, for example we went to Poland. The annual meeting of the ICOM Regional Museums Committee and a meeting of the International Committee of Museums of Architecture were also held in Latvia.
IZS: How did you arrive at NEMO [Network of European Museum Organizations]?
JG: I believe that Astra Kalniņa attended the first NEMO meeting, while she was working at the methodological centre. Although Latvia wasn’t then a member of the European Union, NEMO brought together museums organisations from EU Member states. Observing the processes in the Baltic States in the early 1990s, the then head of NEMO, Frank Birkebæk from Denmark, insisted that the Baltic States be brought into the fold. This was a policy of solidarity and support, and the Baltics were initially accepted into NEMO as associate members. Astra went to the NEMO meeting, then for several years Inga Štamgute (then working at the Museum of Riga’s History and Navigation) was Latvia’s representative in NEMO. Inta had a talent for making her presence known, she was very proud of her museum and ably represented Latvia’s museums. After these trips, she also gave a report on what had been discussed at NEMO to Muzeju Vēstnesis (Museums News). On Inta’s initiative, Frank Birkebæk visited Latvia and spent time in our museums.
IZS: Please tell me how the Board of Museums came into being. The Law on Museums was adopted…
JG: The Law on Museums was adopted in 1997, and in early 1998 the State Board of Museums (MVP) began work. Before that, Cabinet regulations needed to be adopted, i.e. the Bylaws of the State Board of Museums. This wasn’t an easy process, and it wasn’t sufficient that such an institution is stipulated in the Law on Museums. Three specialists and a part-time bookkeeper were earmarked. That was all that could be funded at the time, The Ministry of Finance doubted whether such a body was needed at all. But at a Cabinet committee meeting, the then Minister for Education and Science Juris Celmiņš gave his backing to the board, and the bylaws were adopted.
IZS: But the MVP was established by the ministry itself.
JG: Yes. The State Board of Museums has always been subordinated to the Ministry of Culture.
IZS: Who worked in the Board of Museums? You already mentioned that initially Inta Štamgute worked there, and…
JG: When the board was established, its first employees were Inta Bušmane and Inta Štamgute. It announced a tender, which I applied for, and on 8 May 1998 I was appointed as board chairman. At that time, Inta Štamgute and Anita Jirgensone worked with me. I had earlier worked with Inta and Anita at the Association of Museums. Then we were joined by Vita Rinkeviča, who I also knew from the association, when she was the director of Ogre Museum. I can state without a doubt that we all cared about museums and shared the same goal of doing something significant for the museums sector, and we gained great satisfaction from the countless hours we put into the work. When we were joined by Una Sedleniece, who had returned from studies in Germany, her knowledge and international experience enabled us to organise the board’s work more systematically and employ modern solutions. Later, when the board’s capacity was increased and it had proved its usefulness to the museum sector, Latvian Academy of Culture graduates Gundega Dreiblate, Daina Ratniece, Raivis Sīmansons and Jana Šakare also came to the board. More or less from the beginning of the Museology study programme, board employees were involved in the educational process by giving lectures and organising study trips to foreign museums. This enabled the students to get to know us, and vice versa, which led to subsequent cooperation as colleagues. I am very grateful to my former colleagues, because just like in museums good teamwork means a lot in a small managerial institution.
IZS: And again – did the centre of gravity and influence shift from the association to the State Board of Museums, or not?
JG: The status and competencies of Association of Museums and the Board of Museums are different. The former was a non-governmental organisation whose members, i.e. the museums, made their own decisions as to their activities, whereas the latter is a state body whose authority and functions are set out in laws and regulations. What they share in common is that both work with the museum sector with the goal of supporting its development. Therefore, some of the association’s functions, such as further education of museum staff, were taken over by the board. As the Board of Museums had paid employees, the association gained the opportunity to think about its future role without duplicating the functions of the board.
What the museum staff most expected from the board were opportunities for further education. Over time, opportunities were created for both beginners in the sector and experienced specialists. Daina Ratniece was responsible for this function. She also took care of the collection of museology literature which we built up by receiving special literature from abroad. In my opinion, another significant contribution to the sector’s development was the creation of the “Museology Library,” I which we translated foreign museology works as well as encouraging Latvian writers.
The Baltic Museology School established in 2004 became a long-term further education project. This was Anita Jirgensone’s idea – creating an education project for Baltic States’ museum staff based on the example of the Brno Museology Summer School. We convinced the Ministry of Culture in collaboration with the ministries in neighbouring countries to support the project, and it has turned out to be one of the most enduring undertakings. In the initial years, we did all the organisational work, but eventually the school became a travelling project, held in rotation between the three countries.
Of course, further education was not the only function of the board. Its primary task was managing the museum sector by coordinating its activities at a national level. The board began work on a museum accreditation system, and the first cultural policy document it produced was the National Programme “Culture.” I think it was a happy coincidence that the ministry began to develop this policy document right at the time when the Board of Museums was established. It was coordinated by economist Raita Karnīte, and its policy objective was to show that culture is not just a consuming sector, an ornament on our festive gown, so to speak, but that it makes a vital contribution to our national economy and societal development. Working on the programme gave an invaluable insight into the state of the museums sector, and kits needs and long-term goals. We, the staff of the board, were more akin to organisers or moderators in the programme’s development, while the real doers were those energetic museum specialists who took an interest. And there were plenty of them who took such an interest. Arnis Radiņš, Aija Fleija, Klāra Radziņa, Anna Jurkāne, Gita Grase and Agrita Ozola are just a few colleagues who I most vividly recall. With hindsight, it seems to me that the key to the bord’s success was successful cooperation between the people of the sector. If there was a chasm between the bureaucracy (which the board was, of course) and the sector, it was minimal, and it did not hinder the development of the sector.
I recall at the beginning of the museum accreditation process a meeting was held in 2004 at the P.Stradiņš Museum of Medical History, held to evaluate the first five years of accreditation. The broad representation of museum experts on committees was hailed as one of the benefits gained by the accreditation process. This was an invaluable education for museum staff, an opportunity to critically examine museums from a detached viewpoint. The list of experts put together by the museums themselves, selecting highly esteemed colleagues, was extensive. The list was approved by the Council of Museums. Therefore, accreditation was both an evaluation by the managing institution of the work of the museum and its compliance with the accreditation criteria stipulated in the Law on Museums, as well as an effective educational experience for sector personnel.
IZS: The Law on Museums – how did we come to the point where that became necessary?
JG: After the restoration of independence, Latvia worked to become a “law-based state,” meaning that decision making is not based on subjective, politicised judgments, but on a system which is both acceptable to and binding on both society and professionals. I believe this is also the guiding light in the museums sector. It was clear that a lot of things needed to change, but what would these changes be, and who would make the decisions? The law was perceived as a certain guarantee of the continuity of the work of museums and the system. It may sound prosaic, but the law was viewed as a defence mechanism so that decisions would not be subjective or unfair. At the same time, examining the first redaction of the law, it encompassed the idea of the heritage preserved by museums, i.e. the National Museums Collection Framework; mechanisms for overseeing the museums sector as a system and setting quality standards, i.e. the accreditation mechanism; involvement by the sector in decision making, i.e. the role of the Council of Latvian Museums. I believe these are aspects which testify to ore than mere existence or a wall of protection. The core concepts enshrined in the first law are still relevant, although naturally there have been changes driven by various factors. The Law on Museums represented our common understanding, i.e. all of our museum colleagues who were involved, regarding what the sector should be and how it should operate.
IZS: Including the requirement for accreditation, you mean during the LMA period?
JG: The draft law was written in the ide 1990s, while the Association of Museums was still around. So the idea of accreditation also emerged at that time. We had heard about the museums registration system in England and the accreditation experience in the USA, Margriet Lestraden soke to us about analysing and evaluating museums in the Netherlands. We didn’t invent this wheel on our own. The idea came from the global experience of museums. We had to develop regulations and procedures suitable for Latvia. Anita Jirgensone gained a lot when she received funding to spend a month in America, getting to know the US Association of Museums and learning about the American system of accreditation. The situation in Latvian in the 1990s was one of pure survival. This meant that the requirements for museums had to stimulate their professional activities while recognising the objective realities relating to staff professionalism, available funding and other factors. And so these standards were set as minimum requirements. Does this mean that there can’t be even higher goals and such standards limit museums? Of course not. I am convinced that accreditation has stimulated museums and improved understanding of the essence and core functions of museums and their organic relationship. Accreditation has enabled us to see the strengths and weaknesses of the sector as a whole, rather than just for individual museums. And as I already mentioned, involving museums staff in the accreditation process as committee members has been an invaluable educational experience.
In the course of time, the accreditation criteria and requirements have changed and expanded, and this is a logical process. The fact that every museum has had to think about its core function or mission has led to the development of core function policies and encouraged long-term strategic planning, which is closely related to accreditation. Are there other formats for evaluation and stimulating quality? Of course. These have changed over time, and doubtless will continue to change.
IZS: At what point did the Council of Latvian Museums appear?
JG: The idea of the council is also embedded in the law. The council is a consultative body representing the sector, which allows the decision makers, i.e. the Ministry of Culture, other ministries, municipalities, to gear the views of sector professionals, and to test draft regulations, thus avoiding hurried decisions which are later regretted. Issues such as museum accreditations, removal of items from the National Museums Collection, the creation of new museums or the reorganisation or liquidation of existing ones etc. is coordinated with the Council of Museums. The Council of Museums takes part in the development of sectoral strategy and the improvement of regulations. The council has honourable carried out these functions since it was established in 1998. The effectiveness of the council has depended on the people delegated to it, i.e. how active they have been, whether they have understood that they represent a specific group of institutions in the sector and have expressed its viewpoint in the council. The ties with the sector have varied in different periods of the council’s existence.
IZS: What does the liquidation of the Board of Museums mean for the sector? How could this have happened? The same State Cultural Monuments Protection Inspectorate became autonomous. Then the next step – merging the museums section…
JG: To answer this question, we need to recall the time when it happened. It was in 2008/2009, when the country was in a crisis. What did this mean for society and culture? The government took a completely different approach to that during the present pandemic crisis. Whereas today millions are earmarked, at that time the mantra was reducing spending and if necessary, liquidating institutions. The government pursued austerity as a way out of the situation by restructuring, centralising, merging, or in the worst case, liquidating institutions. This also affected museums, and the museum sector underwent serious restructuring. Fortunately, we managed to avoid any museums being closed for good.
Of course, the crisis affected not only museums, but also administrative bodies. The Latvian Chamber of Commerce and Industry was commissioned by the government to functionally evaluate all state institutions. The ruling on the Board of Museums was crystal clear – it wasn’t needed.
In a situation where museums themselves were under threat, I didn’t think it appropriate to fight for the board, which after all was created as a tool to help museums develop rather than being an end in itself. This didn’t seem ethical to me. So we didn’t actively protest the liquidation of the Board of Museums. Another consideration was that the Ministry of Culture promised to assume the functions of the board. It was promised that the mechanisms and structure established under the Law on Museums wouldn’t be dismantled, and at least some of the board’s staff would continue working in the ministry. Of course, things turned out differently in reality. As a policy making body, the ministry did not engage in the projects and activities like the board.
Another nuance which helps explain the board’s action was that the museums community and the board did not actively advocate for the retention of the board. From a human perspective, this was understandable. Each museum was concerned about its own future. Another human aspect was that all the unpopular decisions – merging museums, handing them over to municipalities or other institutions – were accepted by everyone with gritted teeth, not joy. But who was supposed to process these documents? The Board of Museums. Who would protest against liquidating the board in these circumstances? Apparently, there was no appetite to do this.
IZS: Jumping ahead of time, around the time of the next shock, when the Museums Section was merged with the Archives and Libraries Section, the Cultural Monuments Centre became the National Cultural Monuments Board. It seems a little strange that while other sectors are standing up for themselves, we are giving up.
JG: Yes, there was that choice. For example, the Riga Cinema Centre (now the National Cinema Centre). When they wanted to subsume this body into the ministry, there were protests from the sector and the proposal was amended.
IZS: It may be that the struggle waged by MVP signalled the dawn of the age of individualism in the sector. And looking back on these 30-40 years, we can see that initially, as you said, many people were passionate about new things and changing processes, introduced the law, thought and acted, then we arrive at today where museum specialists and museums are more or less individualists. Perhaps the loss of MVP was the start of this “new” era – everyone for themselves…
JG: Perhaps. Of course, the world never stands still. As a person deeply involved in these processes, it wouldn’t be fair for me to judge. I’ll leave that for others. But I want to reiterate my conviction that the mission of the Board of Museums was to help the sector to grow and thrive. If there are better tools for the job, then there is no need to dramatize the transformation of one body. I am also convinced that dialogue and cooperation between the sector and its managerial (or representative) bodies is a prerequisite for growth. This was what happened with both the Association of Museums and the State Board of Museums. I am concerned that all of the subsequent changes, i.e. subordination of the sector’s management to the ministry, and the merging of the Museums Section with other memory institutions, did not strengthen dialogue. I have the feeling that with regard to managing the museum sector, the ministry has sought to rid itself, abandon, shake off or ignore something. I would not like to see this chasm grow any wider.
IZS: To perhaps end on a positive note – today we have several non-governmental bodies in the museums sector which, if we look at the situation over the last few years dispassionately, a period which perhaps coincides with the marginalisation of the Museums Section in the Ministry of Culture, each do their own thing in an outstanding way mums (in research, further education and other spheres.). Perhaps this is not the worst way for the sector to develop? OK, it is decentralised, and none of us got state procurements or assignments, but we are in charge of many aspects within the sector.
JG: Of course, it is good that there are many serious NGOs in the sector. I am particularly pleased that in the last few years the Association of Museums has been reinvigorated – although I cannot be a member of that body, I regard it as my home. When I retired, I received lots of good wishes from people. I am very grateful to them all. But a letter of commendation from the Association of Museums meant the most to me. Those were very special years in my career in museums.
IZS: But hasn’t the ministry left museums stewing in their own juices at the moment? Those who are doing something - great. The others – leave them alone…
JG: I think the sector has developed to the extent that it can think for itself and take constructive action. Regarding my colleagues at the Archives, Libraries and Museums Section, I can say with absolute confidence that they care about museums and the sector as a whole. However, due to downsizing, the department’s capacity has been reduced, thus perhaps leaving the impression of things in free fall. The ministry is developing Cultural Policy Guidelines. I await with interest what that holds in store for the museum sector.
IZS: I find it a bit shocking that at the moment the ministry is implementing just such a policy. Look at what’s happening at RVKM, the Ethnographic Museum etc. – no one says anything, so we pretend there aren’t any problems?
And so the conversation ended on a questioning rather than a positive note.
Graphic design: Edvards Percevs