The Himsel Detective
The first public museum in the Baltics, named after Nikolaus von Himsel, a Riga doctor and collector, is 250 years old this year.
The collections of the Himsel Museum became the foundation of three later museums of national importance - the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation, the Latvian National Museum of Art and the Latvian Museum of Natural History.
Each of these museums is represented by one or more objects, symbolically recreating the musée universel of the Enlightenment era, in which the library was given a central place alongside objects of art, nature and science. The world of books is represented by Himsel's dissertation and the manuscript of his European travels (1752-1757)*.
In the 21st century, the universal museum has acquired a new relevance in the light of a critical examination of past collecting practices. The challenges of the coexistence of civilisations sustain the need for a forum where cultures engage in respectful dialogue.
How will the Himsel Museum and the hitherto little-known tradition of museology in Riga be represented in this global debate?
This celebratory exhibition offers both a symbolic reconstruction of the universal museum of the Enlightenment, which sees the world as one, and asks critical questions about the colonial origins of national museum collections.
* In collaboration with the Department of Manuscripts and Rare Books of the Academic Library of the University of Latvia, work continues on the first critical publication of Himsel's manuscript of his European travels, Die Reisen.
Seeing the world as one
An amber-cut dice, a malachite stone specimen, a miniature engraving of St Sebastian...
What do these objects from the worlds of everyday life, nature and art have in common, which today are individually preserved in city, nature and art museums?
The universal museum of the Enlightenment era aspired to see the world as one. One in which objects and phenomena are interconnected, and only in their wholeness can the order of things be grasped. Taxonomy had not yet become the dominant method of interpretation in the universal museum, giving more space to association and imagination and anticipating a multiplicity of stories.
Himsel's doctoral thesis of 1751, On the Proportion of a Healthy Diet of Animals and Vegetables, which represents the world of books inherent in the universal museum, is as much a fact of the history of the development of medical science as a metaphor for a proportionate - balanced world view.
The manuscript of Himsel's European travel diaries, hitherto inaccessible to the general public, demonstrates the principle of openness characteristic of the Enlightenment: encyclopaedism here serves as a method of achieving a greater ambition - the widest possible world view.
Object as evidence
The magnificent Surinam butterfly, which is depicted in the album of the Riga pharmacist Jakob Johann Voss, serves as proof of the colonial origins of certain city museum collections and precisely locates the (post)colonial debate in the cultural space of Latvia.
The global museological and political debate on the origins of ethnographic, anthropological and natural history collections in Western museums dates back to the 1970s in the context of the growing repatriation and reparation demands of the former colonies.
The debate gained new urgency at the turn of the century with the threat to world cultural heritage in war zones and the positioning of the large museums of the West as safe havens for the preservation of world heritage following the principle of the whole world under one roof.
Despite the prevailing apologetics of the universal museum, the last two decades have seen Western museums scrutinising colonial collections and engaging in dialogue with communities representing the collections' places of origin.
For Latvia, this (post)colonial debate has so far been practically invisible.
However, given that the Foss Collection was transferred to the Natural History Cabinet of the Himsel Museum in the early 19th century and became part of the public city museum, the development of these collections must be critically examined in the context of colonialism.
Exhibition is open from 16 - 21 October, 2023 at RSU Anatomy Museum
Concept and texts: Raivis Sīmansons, Ineta Zelča Sīmansone
Graphic design: Edvards Percevs
Editor: Austra Celmiņa-Ķeirāne
Consultants: Aija Taimiņa, Baiba Vanaga
Foto: Didzis Grodzs
Cooperation partners: RSU Anatomy Museum, RSU Institute of the Medicine History, LU Academic Library, Latvian National Museum of Art, Art Museum Riga Bourse, Latvian National Museum of Natural history