Every day I look out of my office window at the hulking construction site opposite where a new Latvian national library is being built.
Progress is steady and while I personally dislike the chosen design (this will be a white elephant that actually looks like a white elephant) and the usual problems of overspending, poor planning and lack of finncial transparency surround the project, it’s certainly the case that Latvia needs a decent national library.
Libraries, like arboretums, swimming pools and playgrounds are things you can never have too many of.
But while the money is pouring into the decidedly 1980s-looking ‘Palace of Light’ project things are a lot more difficult for the small museums that already exist. All three Baltic states have dozens of these, the so-called “memorial museums” where famous figures lived, were born or died.
Perhaps “famous” is overdoing it. Apart from one or two well-known political figures such as Ulmanis or Pats, about whom the more diligent Lonely Planet-toting tourists may have read few paragraphs, most of the memorial museums are dedicated to people quite a lot of the locals aren’t sure about, let alone foreigners.
The complex history of the region has also played its part in giving these museums an uncertain status. Some writers or artists of the first period of independence in the early 20th century were forgotten – intentionally or otherwise – during the Soviet years, only to be rediscovered with the restoration of independence. Yet even this rediscovery can seem to be more from a sense of duty than genuine interest.
Conversely some poets and musicians active during the Soviet years achieved a good deal of popularity. For them the restoration of independence sometimes saw their work immediately downgraded or regarded as second rate, even if it had little or nothing to do with Marxist-Leninist ideology – that it merely existed during the dark years was enough to devalue it.
Now, twenty years after the Baltic Way, enough time seems to have passed for some of the Soviet-era artists to win a partial revaluation, while some of the original heroes of independence are being allowed to fade away. And so the pendulum of history swings again.
In the meantime the memorial museums exist, on tiny budgets and a trickle of visitors. But the obscurity of the people they celebrate or commemorate can be quite stimulating. With no preconceptions and no prior knowledge, the one thing of which you can be sure is that you will learn something from a visit. It may not be anything profound or even particularly interesting, but it will be something completely new and completely unexpected.
Even if it is an unusual chair, the smell of a study or the view from a corner window, these memorial museums make you feel a direct link to an individual who stood where you are now standing and sat in the same chair, smelled the same wooden panels or looked out of the same window at the same snow-bowed tree.
I experienced that curious temporal displacement this week when I visited the Janis Akuraters memorial museum in Riga. Built entirely of wood over the course of a single summer in 1933 in a functionalist style that must have seemed avant garde, I knew very little of Akuraters.
Most briefly described as a writer, a visit to his house gave a much more complex picture of the man. Indeed he wrote and wrote well, but was unfortunate that some of his friends such as Karlis Skalbe, wrote even better. He suffers in comparison in the same way that hanging out with Manet was a good way to win a reputation as a second-rate painter.
Akuraters was also a patriot who played an important part in winning Latvia’s freedom, founding several institutions and laying the groundwork for an enduring sense of statehood.
All of that I could get from Wikipedia, but walking around his house made me realise that Akuraters was the sort of man history tends to be careless of. The pictures of him with other, better-known figures hosting soirees and chairing meetings in those very rooms showed that it was generally they who seemed respectful of him.
The strong impression I gained was of a man who was blessed with the art of combination, of putting things together: people, committees, theatres, parties, radio stations, constitutions, houses. A man whose real talent lay in directing the talents of others while jockeying them along with his own contributions, daring them to do better.
His house also revealed a man with a keen visual and aesthetic sense who loved travel and had a refined but restrained taste for little luxuries. His 1920s Guerlain eau de cologne bottle (empty) was still preserved in his desk drawer in its orignal box. It’s hard not to like such a man.
I should also mention that Akuraters was brought to life by my excellent guide, Aija. She was young, extremely knowledgeable and pleasant and I assume must have done some research on Akuraters.
When I arrived she asked if I wanted a guided tour, which would cost a little bit extra. I said no thanks, I was really just here to look at the architecture. She gave me a guided tour anyway.
The new library will no doubt have a few volumes of Akuraters’ work available plus a rank of computer screens on which to look him up on Wikipedia. But it won’t have the view from his study, the pictures his friends gave or the lingering smell of his empty eau de cologne bottle.