Baltic countries home to hundreds of museums

A semester ago, I was among graduate students from George Mason University serving as virtual interns for the Smithsonian Institution, cataloging cultural repositories on several Caribbean islands affected by recent hurricanes. On some of the islands, the number of museums and other sites was a mere handful, but finding information on even them at times proved challenging.

This semester, our duties with the Smithsonian’s Cultural Rescue Initiative have us focused on different countries or regions. In my case, I’ve been assigned to gather information about museums in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. For being small countries, they have an impressive list of cultural sites. As a starting point, we’re using Museums of the World, published by the German company De Gruyter. According to the guide, Estonia has 125 museums; Latvia, 177; and Lithuania, 253.

However, the countries’ governments or museum associations list more. Estonia’s Ministry of Culture boasts that compared to other European nations the country “has the most museums per 100,000 inhabitants.” Counting branches, a total of 246 museums can be found, according to the ministry. The Latvian Museums Association counts 196 organizations, although I suspect the actual number might be greater. And, the directory of the Association of Lithuanian Museums includes more than 800 listings.

The cataloguing work involves not just checking whether a museum is already in the Cultural Rescue Initiative’s inventory. Our task includes verifying, or determining, geographical coordinates; evaluating the museum’s cultural significance; learning with what entities it is associated; and providing a description.

For example, take the Rīga Water Supply Museum (Rīgas ūdensapgādes muzejs) in Latvia. I have traveled many times on the A1 national road near Baltezers past the turnoff to the museum. The first time I saw the sign for the museum, I wondered what the appeal could be. Although I still have not visited, thanks to working on the inventory I have a better idea of what I could see there. The museum, established in 1988, tells the story of how water has been supplied to the capital city of Rīga since the 17th century. It’s located at geographic coordinates 57.037152 degrees north latitude and 24.327121 degrees east longitude, according to Google Maps. The museum is locally significant and is run by the Rīga city government’s water supply company, Rīgas Ūdens.

Many other such offbeat museums are found in the Baltics, as are ones devoted to more traditional themes such as writers, artists, political leaders, and folk traditions. Needless to say, I’ve got plenty to keep me busy.