Riga – Latvian War Museum

There’s no admission charge to visit the Latvian War Museum and I had rather taken from that not to get too excited about the experience. However, there was a sign at the entrance saying to leave around two hours for a visit of the entire museum, which made me rather more positive about the whole thing.

The museum has gone to a big effort to make text available in English, although how they’ve done that varies throughout the museum. In the First World War exhibit, which appears to be their latest one, it’s fully integrated into the displays. In some areas they’ve translated it onto a large laminated sheet which hang down from the displays (this is rather fiddly, I’m not sure why they haven’t attached them to the walls) and in other areas they’ve attached the translation to a long chain to stop anyone pinching them. This chain makes a loud clattering noise, so it’s an handy sign to the staff that they’ve got someone English in the museum.

The museum is located in the Powder Tower, which was once part of the city’s fortifications, as well as a much larger neighbouring building which is more modern. The Powder Tower was constructed in 1330 and some of the walls are three metres thick, which incidentally would be useful in today’s constructions to keep out noise.

The museum originally opened in 1921, but the extension to the larger building was completed in 1940, which wasn’t the best of timing all things considered. The Soviets shut down the museum and some of the exhibits managed to disappear during that process.

From 1957 until 1990 the new Soviet influenced Government opened the Latvian SSR Revolution Museum in the building. Some sources say that the museum lost its academic reputation during this time as it was used as a propaganda exercise, although other sources seem to reject this notion. Whichever was true, the museum wasn’t appropriate in its existing form after independence in 1990 and it was remodelled into what it is today.

When doing some restoration to the Powder Tower, this bricked up former defensive window was discovered.

There’s a display about the history of the Powder Tower in the building’s basement.

A model of what the Powder Tower would have looked like.

Guess which helmet comes from which country…. Three of them are German, one is British and one is Belgian.

For those who can’t be bothered to work it out, they’re (from left to right going from top to bottom) Belgian (1917), British (1915), German (1895), German (1915) and German (1918).

I can’t recall seeing a shrapnel shell being cut open before, but they looked devastatingly brutal things.

The document on the left is a mobilisation letter issued in Riga on 1 August 1914. If you were aged between 18 and 43 then you were being called up. I remain very fortunate not to be in a situation where I’m called up, as I’m in that age bracket. I’m also not very brave and would be hopeless in a war situation.

A trench periscope from the First World War.

Identity tags worn by soldiers during the First World War. If you were killed, then at least they could ascertain who you were.

These are bits of tree that were discovered to have bullets and shrapnel stuck in them. They’re from the Machine Gun Hill area and the battle took place in 1917.

The exhibition on the First World War was one of the best I’ve seen, it was well curated, carefully laid out and clearly presented. There wasn’t as much coverage on the Second World War, but it was the Great War that meant that Latvia gained its independence, so it has a different meaning to that in the UK.

The Germans occupied Latvia for under three years, but they devastated the country’s Jewish population in that time. As in other parts of the German Empire the Jews were forced to identify themselves with this yellow badge.

This is a demand which requested the return of Latvian independence, with the intention that they would be circulated around Europe. This particular document was discovered under flooring in 2003.

A slightly macabre exhibit, this is a bullet which was embedded in the heart muscle of Kristaps Zile in 1915. The doctor repaired him, but left the bullet where it was, but it later killed him through a heart attack in 1954. The bullet was given to his son as a memento, which must have been a really lovely thing to be stuck with, and it was given to the museum in 1988.

The museum has a special exhibition on the top floor which show where Latvian soldiers have fought over the last two decades. They’re certainly had a presence in numerous danger zones around the world, although their role has been nearly entirely humanitarian. The museum doesn’t give much coverage to the period from 1945 until 1990 though, although there’s some explanation of the Latvian regiments.

I spent over two hours in the museum in the end, so the guide outside was accurate in that regard. The staff in the museum were varied in terms of their interest, some were busy trying to pro-actively explain information, some were reading their books and didn’t seem to notice visitors. However, given that the museum was free, I’d definitely recommend it. There’s a lot to see from different periods of the country’s military history and I liked how they’d made a real effort to make English translations available.