Raivis Sīmansons. A different memorial museum. The genesis and potential for development of the museum-memorial

Five of the ten Top things to do in Riga as recommended by Lonely Planet fall under the category ‘dark tourism’: the former KGB headquarters (the so-called ‘Corner House’), the Žanis Lipke Memorial, the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum, the Biķernieki Memorial and the 1991 Barricades Museum. In the list, these sites occupy spots number five to nine respectively. It is significant that all of these places (except for the Biķernieki Memorial, which was begun in 1986 and completed in 2001) have emerged within the last 30 years. All of these places align with the classic definition of “dark tourism” put forward in the mid-1990s by J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley[1] – sites connected with tragic events and death in recent history, i.e. within living memory.

In early 2020, Tripadvisor ranked the Lipke Memorial in third place on its list of things to see in Latvia. Currently (in November 2020), when tourism is severely curtailed, the highest ranked tourist attraction is Liepāja’s Karosta (Naval Port) Prison (No 10), followed by Riga’s Corner House (No 16).

In its list of the top ten things to see and do in Riga, Culture Trip gives top ranking to the city’s Art Nouveau architecture, followed by Latvia’s 20th century history, citing the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum, two classic dark tourism attractions, as examples.

There is a clear trend – popular global tourism platforms rank dark tourism destinations right behind popular architectural and natural sites.

Given the focus in the memory policy of the European Union (and pro-European national states, regions and cities) over recent decades on the study of 20th century totalitarianism, specifically positioning the Holocaust as the negative foundation myth of the EU, whose recognition and commemoration is symbolically tied to upholding democracy on the continent, it must be asked – what is the relationship between memory policy and the popularity of new memory culture institutes, i.e. museum-memorials, in the early 21st century? 

In this report, I will examine several methodological issues relating to the entry of new museum institutions in Latvia and their development potential.

Memorial museums – a matter of terminology

In the early 21st century, in the Latvian language the phrase ‘memoriālais muzejs’ (memorial museum) designates a museum dedicated to a particular personality at their authentic home, which often doubled as their workspace. This concept entered Latvian during the Soviet period, adopting the term ‘мемориальный музей’ from the Russian language. 

The oldest Latvian museum dedicated to a personality provides the following description about itself: ‘Founded in 1929, the commemorative museum dedicated to brothers Reinis (1839–1920) and Matīss (1848–1926) Kaudzītis is the oldest memorial museum in Latvia.' The terminology employed here clearly indicates that during the first independent republic the concept ‘memorial museum’ was not in usage in Latvian in the sense it is employed today.

A more appropriate description of this type of museum is the English-language term historic house, whose typology dates back to the earliest, pre-Enlightenment form of museum – the cabinet. In English, memorial museum designates a comparatively recent phenomenon, i.e. an amalgam of a memorial and a museum dedicated to some tragic event of the 20th or 21st century which is within living memory and usually had human victims. 

In contrast to the museum type which dominated in the era of nationalism, i.e. the museum-monument, which celebrated heroism and national sovereignty in the first wave of globalisation prior to the First World War, the museum-memorial belongs to the post-war (2nd part of the 20th century) culture of regret, initially in Western societies and later globally. Two of the most emblematic 20th and 21st century memorial museums in the West are the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (initiated in1978 and opened in 1993) in Washington DC, and the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York, opened in 2011, ten years after the terrorist attacks. 

In this context, the memorial museum has a direct link with violence and human suffering caused by human rights violations. Due to historical circumstances, the museum-memorial in the Western democratic sense could not exist in Latvia prior to 1991.

However, legislation from the late 1990s governing museums in Latvia does not allow for the unambiguous adoption of the laconic term memorial museum used in Anglo Saxon countries in relation to museum-memorials. In the Cabinet of Ministers ‘Regulations Regarding the National Holdings of Museums,’[2] the concept of memorialisation is used in the context of guidelines for the assembling of collections, in describing the significance of an object or event. This encompasses the concept of memorial value, i.e. the connection between a museum object and an outstanding personality or important historic event. Unlike in English, the concept is not connected with tragic events requiring the commemoration of human victims, therefore it is not applied to museum-memorials thematically dedicated to 20thcentury totalitarian regimes and their consequences.

The oldest museum of such a type in Latvia is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, founded by members of the Latvian diaspora in 1993. At the beginning of the 21st century it was joined by the 1991 Barricades Museum, which also has a distinctly museum-memorial profile since commemoration of the victims of the barricades is a central element in its narrative, then a decade later by the Žanis Lipke Memorial, which tells the story of civic resistance to the genocide of the Jews during the Second World War. The most recent addition to the memorial and museum genre is the museum-like space ‘Sirdsapziņas ugunskurs’ (Burning Conscience) established by Elīna Kalniņa in the former town gaol of Cēsis and opened in 2018, which explores the history of the occupation of Latvia from 1939 to 1957 and the national resistance movement in the vicinity of Cēsis

The Žanis Lipke Memorial as a methodological problem

In addition to complexities relating to the concept of the memorial museum, the Žanis Lipke Memorial (ŽLM) presents another methodological problem. This relates to the traditional view of a memorial as a place commemorating some tragic event, whereas the  ŽLM primarily highlights a man, his family and co-conspirators  who through practicing civil disobedience saved lives, i.e. it is a place where people were saved rather than killed.

In English, the concept of the memorial is unambiguous. Architecture critics schooled in the traditional meaning of the term have interpreted the ŽLM accordingly. As a new, world-class architectural object, following its opening in 2011, the ŽLM received coverage from several prestigious architectural journals. For example, the ŽLM was featured in a supplement to the Korean architectural magazine C3 titled ‘Death and architecture. Building the end. Architecture of memorial’[3], which examined the architecture of various places of remembrance (crematoria, mausoleums, crypts, cemeteries and pantheons), as well as memorials. Here, the ŽLM appears amidst other memorials unveiled around the world in 2011, including the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York and the Kazerna Dossin Holocaust Museum in Mechelen, Belgium (a place from where Jews were sent in railway cars to the east). 

In turn, Interior Designer. China Architecture & Building Press,[4] which is targeted at a Chinese audience, unequivocally designates the ŽLM as the Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum. Therefore, in the English-speaking space, it is assigned the aforementioned status of a memorial museum as understood in Anglo Saxon countries. 

Similarly, the German publication Deutsche Bauzeitung[5] described the ŽLM as a Gedenkstaette und Museum, i.e. a place of commemoration (a memorial) and a museum. 

It can therefore be concluded that the term memorial museum which has gained consistent usage in English-language museology literature denotes a new, hybrid form of museum, in which both components, i.e. memorial and museum, have equal weight. According to this formula, the memorial museum is a typologically separate form of museum, which is accompanied by specific ‘instructions for use’ and an anticipated programme of action. By declaring itself to be a memorial with a permanent exposition, the ŽLM became a memorial museum in the Anglo Saxon sense of the term, which raises specific expectations, i.e. to use historically-based  education as the post-war voce of human rights in society.

Since it is unlikely that in the near future the so called memorial museums dedicated to Latvia’s outstanding personalities will be renamed historic homes, apartments, rooms or summer cottages following the English historic house principal, to avoid confusion, it would be advisable to continue referring in the Latvian language in the public space to these new hybrid places of commemoration and museums as memorials and museums or museum-memorials interchangeably, as already happens. However, as this report is aimed at professionals in the field, I will use the term memorial museum in the hope that it will gain wider usage in Latvian in the sense that I have described here. Moreover, in terms of the expansion of this semantic area, the case of ŽLM is even more of an anomaly, as this is possibly the first case in the world where a memorial museum has an entirely positive connotation: Žanis Lipke – saver of lives; the bunker – an affirmation of life; the memorial – a place for celebrating survival and life. From a museology viewpoint, this is undoubtedly an innovation, for which it received the Kenneth Hudson Award by the European Museum Forum, which runs the prestigious European Museum of the Year Award, but it also presents a methodological problem.

Unique aspects of the memorial museum

The key attribute which separates the new type of memorial museum from its predecessor, i.e. the classic history museum as a distanced and cooled down showcase of the past, is the unmediated emotional experience and moral message which it seeks to impart. Unlike the average history museum, for which being located in a specially designed or adapted space is not decisive, in most cases memorial museums:

- Are located in an authentic location of events;

- Promote conscious, focussed communication with the public, and employ scenography for the interpretation of event, place, persons, objects etc. to provide a powerful emotional experience, with the object serving not merely as an illustration, but as evidence;

- Address the issue of individual responsibility in the context of historic events, often in association with current processes of democracy and equal rights;

- Raise broader memory policy issues – what is worthy of commemoration in our contemporary society?

At a time when memorial museums are becoming highly popular tourist attractions, there is an ethical tension between the desire to draw more and more oversees visitors versus meaningful involvement of the local community. Due to their sensitive content, museums are a prism through which we can analyse cultural tourism, including dark tourism. On this regard ŽLM presents an exceptional case study. As already stated, the Žanis Lipke Memorial is not the first museum institution in Latvia to employ the museum-memorial symbiosis formula[6], but it is the first in whose name the term memorial is included purposefully, thus projecting certain expectations.

What led to the creation of the memorial museum? The short answer is that a memorial as merely an outdoor architectural monument was no longer sufficient, just like the classic history museum was no longer an adequate vehicle for effective communication and education. Placing a museum component in a memorial and museum ensemble ensures continuity in interpretation. The aim is to perform civic education work synchronously with an understanding of diachronous historic events through emotional experience, which responds to contemporary social issues and stimulates civic participation. 

The new post-war historiography, i.e. the study of the consequences of totalitarianism in free Western societies, particularly West Germany, in combination with the global human rights agenda introduced by the United Nations(1948), was the main catalyst for the emergence of museums of contemporary history, which often manifested themselves as memorial museums or museum-memorials.

Western European countries did not have long to wait before places which became agents of change surrounding these methodological problems, employing emotional messaging to personalise mass tragedy, began positioning themselves in the sphere of traditional museums. By far the most known example of this is the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. This memorial museum was opened in 1960, and through initially national and later global educational work, it evolved from showcasing Anne Frank story as a Holocaust victim and symbol of resistance into an institution primarily associated with promoting democracy and equal rights. While over time a museum visitor will inevitably forget the complex explanations of history presented in a typical history museum, the emotional experience of identifying with another human being – a witness to history – will endure. As a result, Anne Frank has become an important symbolic figure and a role model for young people. Her diary has been translated into more than 70 languages, and related products from the digital era such as video blogs and virtual reality experiences reach millions of people. 

Pauls Williams, senior content developer at the museum planning firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates, in his book 'Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities'[7], perceptively outlines the qualities and development perspectives of the memorial museum:

‘[..] their display of sensitive artifacts and images requires ethical attention to issues of emotional effect; their geographic location is often more critical; they are more directly implicated in political controversy; visitors are often directly situated in relation to the event; memory and testimony have a comparatively enlarged status; their pedagogy has a weightier gravitas.’

Williams describes memorial museums as a performing museum[8], because of qualities which make them particularly suitable for evoking drama. These qualities include both exteriors and interiors, scenography with lighting, ambient sound, mise-en-scènes with various objects and documents as proof, personal stories of witnesses to the events and the dramaturgy of the visit, which always creates the drama of co-participation for the visitor. Moreover, former places of incarceration are the most popular category of authentic location for memorial museums. In the case of the Žanis Lipke Memorial, the reconstructed refuge (bunker) enables the museum to provide an otherwise unimaginable emotional experience akin to that of the people who found refuge there.

Therefore, the pedagogy of the memorial museum is grounded in an emotional experience which should motivate action. Here, visitors don’t just learn something about history; they join in a form of conversation with the museum, which seeks to persuade and leave an impression on the specific visitor’s worldview.

Memory politics

From its inception, the Žanis Lipke Memorial’s mission statement ‘to make the world a better place by spreading a message of courage and humanity as value that unite human beings’ embodies the values I outlined at the beginning of the report, which we frequently associate with the universal human rights set out by the United Nations, although equal rights is in fact a much broader sphere, encompassing all of the living world.

As Amy Sodaro writes in the introduction to her book ‘Museums as Sites of Persuasion. Politics, Memory and Human Rights’[9] (part of the museum studies series Museum Meanings published by Routledge):

‘Museums and other memory sites are often charged today with more than simply collecting and displaying objects or symbolically representing the past. Rather, they also work to persuade visitors to change their thinking and behaviour. While museums and memory sites have always played persuasive roles, like shaping national identity (Anderson 1991), many of today’s memory sites claim to work to promote liberal ideals such as human rights, democracy and reconciliation by representing past violence and conflict. [..] Through the use of history and memory, they act as sites of persuasion, working to educate visitors and provide moral lessons intended to contribute to a amore democratic, peaceful present and future. However, political, economic and social realities undermine this lofty goal and raise questions of how these sites of persuasion actually function. Their persuasive role is often more rhetorical than real, limiting their purportedly transformational potential.’ 

Without delving deeper into the field of memory politics, here today at the symposium ‘Žanis Lipke – 120’ it is important to outline the role of the memorial museum in Latvia today. Memorial museums are a vital form of civic organisation. Rather than merely viewing them as aids to the culture policy and education system in implementing certain policies, they deserve greater recognition as agents of change for influencing public opinion in the sphere of democracy and human rights. 

While the main task of memory politics in the context of transitional justice following the collapse of a criminal regime (as was the case in Latvia) is to obtain justice through the law courts, in today’s information-saturated society, memorial museums offer a physical space as a forum for conversations about both the past and the future.

The ability of memorial museums to be critical and to promote unpopular (liberal and progressive) ideas and to weather political storms makes them suitable instruments for explaining historical and contemporary processes.

A comprehensive national defence system

The National Defence Framework stipulates that from the 2024/2025 academic year, defence training will be a compulsory subject at all Latvian secondary schools. This means it will be taught to around 30 000 pupils every year (aged from 15 to 17 years).

Museums-memorials are suitable places for students to learn about personal responsibility in the context of an emotionally charged historical background using the museum’s educational resources.

The Žanis Lipke Memorial has never positioned itself exclusively as a Holocaust museum, but as a museum dedicated to a rescuer of people Žanis Lipke, a museum of civic resistance. However, the question must be posed – could the expansion of the museum’s mission which already includes researching the history of rescuers in Latvia go beyond the historic confines and address issues like global equal rights, particularly human rights, following the example for memorial museums set by the Anne Frank House? 

If the answer is affirmative, then based not only on the museological-typological arguments outlined in this report, but also in the context of the development of the comprehensive national defence system plan, the proposed ‘House of Courage’ educational centre at the Žanis Lipke Memorial can be regarded as viable.

The emergence of a different memorial museum and its high level of popularity in our country reaffirms Amy Sodaro’s views on the future perspectives of such institution grounded in post-war ethical ideal:

‘Despite the collapse of modernity’s belief in progress, memorial museums continue to cling to the notion that confronting the negative past can lead to a better future, reflecting broader assumptions about the ethical duty to remember.’[10]


Paper was presented at the Žanis Lipke Memorial on 5 November 2020 at the conference 'Civic courage for a democratic future – Žanis Lipke 120', organised by the ŽLM and the University of Latvia Institute of Philosophy and Sociology research project MemoTours. The conference was the key event of the symposium ‘Žanis Lipke – 120’ and one of the concluding events of the celebratory programme ‘Latvia – 100’.


[1] Lennon, J., Foley, M. (2000) Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster. Continuum: London. 

[2] Cabinet of Minister Regulation No 956 ‘Regulations Regarding the National Holdings of Museums’, 21.11.2006. Annex 6 of the Regulations subclause 3.2.4.: ‘historic and memorial value (P4) - the relation of the natural object to historic processes or events and a prominent person’. 21.10.2020

[3] C3 (2011, no. 345P. 182-191) Death and Architecture / building the end / architecture of memorial.

[4] Interior Designer. China Architecture & Building Press (2013, Vol. 43, P. 66-71) Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum.

[5] deutsche bauzeitungZeitschrift für Architekten und Bauingeneoure. SCHWERPUNKT: SCHWARZ (11.2013, P.34-39).

[6] The first institution established under the “memorial and museum” formula in Latvia was the Museum of the 50 Years of the Occupation of Latvia, founded in 1993. Although its name does not include the word ‘memorial’, its declared mission to ‘remember, commemorate, remind’ is a typical example of a memorial museum. In subsequent decades, the Occupation Museum has continued to fit the profile of a memorial museum, opening a branch in the former KGB building and developing the House of the Future – adding new museum wing to the museum – project. The interior design for the museum’s new exposition space includes a memorial space with an eternal flame, which in conjunction with the memorial ensemble dedicated to the victims of the Soviet occupation outside bears the hallmarks of a classic memorial. 

In turn, Elīna Kalniņa’s ‘Burning Conscience’ (opened in 2018) in Cēsis continues the memorial tradition in an innovative way by employing multimedia aids with a high degree of authenticity. 

[7] Williams, P. (2007) Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities. Berg Publishers: Oxford and New York, P. 190.

[8] Williams, P. Memorial museums and the objectification of suffernig in Marstine, J. (ed.) (2011) ‘The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics. Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First-Century Museum’. Routledge: London and New York, P. 220-235.

[9] Sodaro, A. (2020). Museums and Sites of Persuasion. Politics, Memory and Human Rights. Routledge: London and New York.

[10] Sodaro, A. (2018). Exhibiting Atrocity: Memorial Museums and the Politics of Past Violence. Rutgers University Press, P. 195. 

Raivis Sīmansons