Eclectic Collections: The Hidden Treasures of Brivdabas

  • 2016-06-13
  • By Emma Ikstruma

As summer begins to fill the air, people are drawn out of their wintertime havens. The promise of warm sunshine brings a rush of energy and curiosity. You may even feel the urge to travel back in time. There is no better place to satisfy that desire than Latvia’s Ethnographic Open-Air Museum (Latvijas Etnogrāfikais brīvdabas muzejs).

Bordering the northern shore of Jugla Lake, Brīvdabas is home to over 100 historical buildings scattered throughout a peaceful pine forest. Sometime during your search for the museum’s four windmills, you’ll discover just how vast the 87 hectare territory is; it’s nearly impossible to see all there is to see in one day, or even in a long weekend. And the average visitor won’t realize that the visible exhibits are only a fraction of the museum’s riches.

A building from Liepāja’s coast, called the Ostmāja, will soon bridge the gap between what the public sees at the museum and what remains hidden. The grand Tudor-style structure sits near the lakeshore, its black and white timber frame details certain to catch the attention of any passerby. Elegantly curled metal fastenings on the aged doors beckon visitors, but at present, padlocks keep everything sealed. Its renovation, expected to be completed in March 2017, is the talk of the museum. The project was funded by the Norwegian government, and has been the subject of local restoration conferences.

In a forest which seems to be frozen in the idyllic past, it may seem strange to hear talk of changes and additions, but the Ostmāja is just one of many buildings that has awaited the opportunity to rise once more. Traveling the dirt road past the beekeeper’s hives, potter’s shed, and Latgale’s giant windmill, visitors will eventually find Brīvdabas’ restoration yard, tucked in the far back corner of the territory. Seemingly guarded by a green midcentury pickup truck, log piles and metal pieces lie in orderly rows. These are the future houses, barns, and sheds of the museum’s dreams.

But according to museum vice director Kristīne Kūla, this future may be far off. “The buildings here have been around since the Soviet era,” she says. “They’ve been waiting for 30 years to be rebuilt.” The journey undertaken by each structure is not as simple as merely assembling a toy log cabin. The buildings are examined by experts in their location of origin, then are carefully taken apart, each piece measured and labeled. Once the pieces arrive at Brīvdabas, the process may halt for an extended period of time. Many factors play into the decision to re-erect a building, explains Kūla. Where will it be put? Who will do the restoration work? Do any pieces need to be fixed or replaced entirely? A house can cost around EUR300,000 to rebuild. Those structures lucky enough to move through the process are restored with the help of blueprints.

The museum has special plans for a couple of structures in particular. Rendes skola, a 18th-19th Century school building, may someday house classes teaching traditional Latvian crafts, run by local artisans. A more ambitious dream involves setting up old railroad tracks and train cars to carry visitors through the territory. But apart from the cost, this plan would involve cutting down trees. “The forest here is very much loved,” says Kūla. Pieces of the railroad collection are currently being exhibited in Ventspils.

The struggles involved in the restoration process mean that a successfully-finished project is cause for celebration. This is why museum employees are so eager to discuss the Ostmāja. But this upcoming completion brings even more good news. Its striking addition to the landscape isn’t the only treat that it will have to offer. The first floor will be home to many of the museum’s wooden chests, or lādes, a publically-accessible exhibit. The museum’s display of lādes at this year’s Easter celebration was very popular, says Brīvdabas director Ilze Millersone; many visitors requested more information about the 50-plus viewable pieces. Experts will select approximately 100 chests for the Ostmāja exhibit.

The wide range of chest dimensions limits the ability to predict how many will fit in the building. The museum’s largest chest, currently undergoing restoration, measures over five feet in length and three feet in height. While it is not the largest known Latvian lāde (that honor may fall to a specimen in Liepāja), several children can fit comfortably inside. It also features a hidden compartment in its rounded lid.

According to Kūla, experts are debating which chests are the “most valuable” and interesting, although these quantifiers are extremely subjective. Chests were used by people from all walks of life for a variety of purposes, from brides-to-be gathering linens to sailors storing tools. Some are adorned with painted flowers and symbols, while others remain bare. Even a seemingly straightforward judgment such as “the oldest” can be difficult to determine, she says. A chest hidden in an administrative building’s attic may hold that title, if the year painted on its front, 1670, is to be believed. It is often impossible to know whether a chest’s digits refer to the year in which it was built, the year in which its owner was born, or the year in which she was married.

The Ostmāja will help alleviate another problem affecting many collections. Unlike similar museums, Brīvdabas lacks a central storage facility—pieces from various collections are tucked away in locked cottages and sheds throughout the property. Because they are so widely scattered, it can be difficult to estimate how many items are in any given collection. However, the Ostmāja’s spacious second and third floors, while off-limits to the public, will act as storage areas.

Indeed, buildings and lādes are only the beginning of the museum’s impressive supply of artifacts. While many items are rarely in the company of their own kind, portions of some collections are kept together. Lucky museum insiders may have the opportunity to admire rainbows of mittens and socks, clusters of glass-adorned silver jewelry, rows of wood and bone cutlery. The restoration facility in particular shelters an array of items, sure to utterly astound a visitor with their sheer numbers and eccentricity: Shelves upon shelves of multicolored pottery and ceramic nine-headed bovines. Ornate samovars and a giant ball for steeping spices in stew. Brooches and belts woven from human hair. Vintage sewing machines sporting varying hues of rust. A tiny room in which every inch of wall space is hidden by cream-colored floral clocks. Another tiny room shared by VEF radios and record players, shoes and traditional leather slippers.

The employees who spend their days here happily open endless drawers of century-old linens, recite an encyclopedia’s worth of information about farm instruments and furniture. While many collections are hidden from the public eye, they are embraced and deeply appreciated. Some items even serve as inspiration for future artwork—Kūla says that artisans who sell their pieces at Gadatirgus (the Traditional Applied Folk Arts Fair) sometimes study Brīvdabas’ artifacts for design ideas.

But despite the dust gathering on unseen collections, the future is far from bleak. Traditional culture remains a topic of great interest in society; the museum receives tens of thousands of visitors annually, some from as far away as East Asia. Latvia could benefit from the innovations of its neighbors, as the Estonian Open-Air Museum plans the construction of a massive publically-accessible glass storage facility. While dreams of crystal-clear display cases may currently feel distant, Brīvdabas has its Ostmāja to eagerly anticipate. And every log pile in the restoration yard can be seen as a well of potential. As summer dawns, so too does the reminder that every artifact may eventually see the light of day.

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