A New City. Exhibition “My, Your, Our Riga 100 Years Ago”

A New City. Exhibition “My, Your, Our Riga 100 Years Ago”
www.zudusilatvija.lv, by courtesy of the Latvian National Library . Riga Castle and Daugava Embankment at the beginning of the 20th century
What should a motorist do if he or she meets a horse-drawn cart in the city, how do you operate a telephone, how much is ink, and which association to join? These are very trivial matters that may seem a little odd to a modern-day individual, but a hundred or so years ago they were as important to the residents of Riga as the construction of cycle lanes or noise pollution caused by nightclubs are today.

The virtual exhibition “My, Your, Our Riga 100 Years Ago”, which opened at the Latvian National Library on the 16th of October, offers a little more than bare facts and the general stereotypes about life in the 19th-century Riga. It is a story about multiple layers in the city and its very different residents, that captures the atmosphere of the first political debates in Riga as the City Council is being elected, the smell of freshly-baked pastry in an Old Town bakery, booklets handed out to jobseekers arriving in Riga to inform them how not to become victims of prostitution, and the city preparing for the celebrations of its 700th anniversary.

As the English King Edward VIII (the one who abdicated the throne because of a love affair) wrote in his notes, he was born at a time when there was no electricity, no planes in the sky, and the radio seemed something completely impossible. Within a very short period of time, however, all of this became a reality. The exhibition about Riga looks at the city in the context of European history. The main features in the development of the 19th century London are the same as in Riga, Berlin, or Paris. That is why the British monarch’s notes are as fitting as Stefan Zweig’s views about  Berlin, Simone de Beauvoir’s memories of her childhood in Paris, or Walter Benjamin’s story about the arrival of the household telephone in Germany.

The person who suggested and organised the exhibition is culture scholar and Professor Deniss Hanovs. The exhibition was organised in close co-operation with the Latvian National Library, and the main part of the exhibition is made up of materials from the National Library’s collections. “This is to demonstrate that the library is not just a place to borrow a book to read, but also a repository of true masterpieces,” says Professor Hanovs. Part of the exhibits is from other Latvian museums and archives.

The exhibition is made up of five thematic divisions that explore the vibrant diversity of Riga since the medieval fortification walls were taken down in the 1850s up to 1914 when World War I began and the city was gripped by fear and pain. This is a period of rapid growth and expansion – boulevards, parks, luxurious apartment buildings and factories are built in Riga, there are various cultures living next to each other – Baltic Germans, Jews, Russians, Latvians, Poles, Britons, etc. Just as any other city, Riga has its bright and dark sides, awe-inspiring festivals and depressing slums. The exhibition also looks into the social problems in the 19th-century Riga. Yet another part of the exhibition is devoted to Rigans’ first steps in politics, and the celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the city in 1901.

The exhibition catalogue is in two languages, offering information about Riga a hundred years ago in five chapters that correspond to the five divisions of the exhibition: “A Growing City”, “The Different Rigans”, “Rigans Go Politics”, “The 700th Anniversary of Riga”, “The Splendours and Shadows of Riga”. In addition, the series “Conversations between Rigans” will feature architects, art researchers, sociologists and urban development experts sharing their visions of the city from different perspectives. Also participating in the project is Ojārs Spārītis, the President of the Academy of Sciences, who, as Deniss Hanovs tells us, is completely in love with the city and knows more about Riga than anyone else.

One of the central exhibits at the exhibition – a special find in the collections of the National Library – is a diary by a German schoolgirl,  E. Urdewitsch, that vividly describes a person’s childhood in the 19th-century Riga. The diary offers precise information on how much ink cost, how much she had to pay for milk in the school, where she had her music class and how much it cost.

“Most probably, we will never learn her name, just like we will never know the colour of her eyes, her voice or her favourite pet. But one laconic entry on the 78th page of the her diary, “Germany has declared war on Russia,” marks the end of her childhood as well as of the 19th-century Riga,” says Deniss Hanovs, adding that this find is a true masterpiece. He has written a chronological account of the schoolgirl’s life, whereas writer Inga Ābele wrote a story based on the account.


The exhibition occupies two National Library exhibition halls: one houses the said five divisions of the exhibition, as well as a chronological display of the developments in Riga and Europe from 1850 to 1914, whereas the other part includes a section dedicated to Arveds Švābe’s poem “City: The Song of a Captive” (“Pilsēta: Gūstekņa dziesma”) and an installation dedicated to the German schoolgirl’s diary.

Deniss Hanovs is known for his monograph “The Culture of the European Aristocracy in the 17th – 19th Centuries” that not only looks into the culture of the European aristocracy, but also attempts to dispel the popular stereotypes we often learn at school, about aristocracy as a perverted class that exists at the expense of the working man. Will this exhibition succeed in changing the perceptions about how people lived in Riga in the 19th century, the workers’ children living in slums at the outskirts of the city, the rich and heartless factory owners? That remains to be seen.

“An important component of our exhibition is a social pyramid, created in collaboration with artists, that is made up of photographs of faces, clothing, environment. The pyramid challenges the stereotypical belief that the rich were only busy with eating caviar and drinking Champagne, while the poor workers were starving to death. That is the rhetoric of Bolsheviks and, later on, Social Democrats. Of course, there was poverty. Riga was not just a city of luxurious shops and cafes. However, people did try to eradicate poverty. It wasn’t a network of social benefits that everyone would be waiting for, depending on the city’s budget. This was a time of self-determination and co-operation. There were all kinds of associations and unions – the association of the retired teachers, the union of the retired waiters, etc.” Deniss Hanovs tells us about the 19th-century Riga.

“Not all residents of Riga had opportunity to enjoy the comforts of the city, its progress, and suchlike. There were poor and sick people in Riga too. Some had come from rural areas and joined the proletariat. There were around 200 factories in Riga at the time. The urban environment was changing, socially vulnerable groups began to appear,” notes Deniss Hanovs. “The exhibition demonstrates that the city was not trying to expel or forget these people – which is what, unfortunately, we can often observe today. The Riga City Council tried to tackle these problems, there was quite an active social policy being implemented, and that is something that we also have tried to show at the exhibition,” the researcher tells us, emphasising that the political and economic elite were also involved in tackling such problems, and this, once again, stands is in stark contrast to what we can see today.

“For example, there were businessmen who paid their money to have hospitals built. Have you seen anything like that during the past twenty years? The 19th century demonstrates how a city can function and solve its problems by itself. I’m fascinated by this.” These are some of the things that we in the 21st century could learn from the past, notes the researcher.

The exhibition showcases the 19th century as a time from which the 20th century evolved, and the subsequent major changes on the map of Europe: “On the one hand, World War I was an immense disaster but, on the other hand, it brought new meaning to this particular region. For instance, Kārlis Skalbe writes in his notes that, while many believe that the old and beautiful world has collapsed, to us it was a prison dismantled – Riga has become the capital city of a new country.”

“I’m very pleased that the exhibition in the library is against the skyline of Riga in the windows. It links the exhibition up with the modern-day city, which actually has much in common with the 19th-century Riga.”

The exhibition “My, Your, Our Riga” is on show at the Latvian National Library until the 30th of November, 2014. The exhibition is part of the “Freedom Street” thematic division of the “Riga 2014” Programme.

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