Council votes to remove museum
Philip Birzulis

RIGA – The Riga City Council has overwhelmingly approved plans to demolish the building housing the Latvian Occupation Museum as part of a large scheme to reconstruct the capital’s historic center. However, museum officials believe there are less drastic alternatives and suspect ulterior motives for the decision.

The Feb. 16 Council session that took the step was brief compared with that of a week earlier that also considered the matter. On that occasion, opposition deputies refused to vote and thereby denied it quorum, but this time 34 were in favor, five against, with one abstention and 16 no-votes.

In two hours of debate before the Feb. 9 vote, supporters of the plan cited practical aspects of the reconstruction project, the building’s Soviet-era symbolism, and the museum’s own need for new premises as reasons to demolish.

Its administrators firmly disagree. On Feb. 11 they unveiled a plan that would add a modern wing replete with long, rectangular windows that they say will be more in keeping with the city’s reconstruction plans for Strelnieku laukums, the square whose rebuilding should be the icing on the cake of Riga’s 800th birthday celebrations in 2001.

Matthew Kott, the Occupation Museum’s executive director, said the presentation was intended as a “pre-emptive strike” to try and win over the Council.

The proposal would have a two-story wing attached to the side of the building nearest the Riga Technical University, a 1960’s structure also slated to go under the city’s plans. It would also turn the entrance around so that visitors enter from the square near the House of Blackheads, a 14th century building currently being rebuilt.

The addition, designed by architect Gunars Lusis-Grinbergs, would house administration offices, thus freeing up the rest of the museum for exhibition space, Kott said.

He also pointed out that expansion would allow the museum to continue its educational programs uninterrupted and would probably cost far less than building new premises elsewhere.

However, Maris Purgailis, a former Riga mayor and one of the main supporters of the Council’s plan, believes that the current location actually hinders the museum’s potential to expand and that its administrators are unwilling to consider alternatives.

“The museum’s leaders are operating under the principle ‘a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush’, he said after the decisive vote.

Purgailis believes that the best location for the museum would be at the Tornakalns railway station in suburban Riga. This would carry a powerful symbolic message, he said, because this was where trains carrying tens of thousands of people deported to Siberia left from in 1940. Museum officials have previously said this site is unsuitable because its distance from the center would drastically reduce visitor numbers, but the deputy claimed it would actually make access easier for tourist buses and pointed out that Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum, for example, is also a little out of town.

Museum officials and opposition deputies have also criticized what they see as the excessive commercialization of the reconstruction. They especially object to ideas for an underground network of shops and eateries; archeologists say the square may have been the burial grounds of an ancient Livonian tribe from the 13th century and the plans would disturb the site.

“This is all about commercial interests, it has nothing to do with Latvia’s history,” said Dagnija Stasko, who heads the museum’s education program. “This is the heart of the oldest part of Riga and they want to put a subterranean mall down there.”

Deputies on the other side say there is no way the whole project can be financed by the city alone, and point out that there are many proposals on what the square will finally look like.

A lot of the decisions will rest with a committee elected Feb. 16 whose mandate is to, “work out a model for the management of the House of Blackheads.” Purgailis, who was voted in as a member of this body, denied that it will have excessive powers over a project whose final shape is still up in the air. Rather, he claimed, the election of ten deputies to accommodate all factions will make its work unwieldy.

With additional reporting by Steven C. Johnson. o

18.02.1999   © The Baltic Times