On September 22, 2013, a group of Philadelphia Latvians experienced an unknown event in Latvian society, which the organisers described as follows, “Latvians Abroad Museum (LaPa) meets American TV programme ‘Antiques Roadshow.”
Just as for the popular TV programme, people in Philadelphia were invited to bring their heirlooms to the event, significant belongings which they had brought with them from Latvia, or which represented some important aspect of the first years outside Latvia. However, while in the TV programme various experts try to determine an objects’ provenance and market value, the main role in the LaPa Roadshow belonged to the heirloom owners. Each owner told the audience about their object – its history, origin and significance in their life. After that, a panel of museum specialists evaluated the relevance of the heirloom to museums, its significance in a historical, cultural, societal or personal context and how it might be used in museum expositions.
To make the event accessible to a wider audience, the presented objects with their stories and their owners were photographed and will be posted in a LaPa Roadshow gallery on the LaPa web site. The stories and heirlooms brought to the event were very interesting, valuable and often times moving, for example, the children’s Christmas picture book, drawn by the artist Alfreds Kalniņš and written by the author Vera Čakare in late 1944 in Czechoslovakia as they were fleeing from Latvia in World War II. The first eight pages depict the happy, joyous activities of a traditional Latvian Christmas during peacetime. The father brings a freshly cut Christmas tree from the snowy woods, the children bake gingerbread cookies, they learn poems to recite to Santa Claus, decorate the Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve, the whole family enjoys the decorated tree and Santa Claus distributes presents to the children. The last page of the book shows what is happening in Latvia at the time – soldiers behind barricades, explosions, bombs, grenades and above all, uncertainty about what happens next. “No other Christmas book in the world has such a negative, dark and hopeless ending,” said Jānis Čakars, the grandson of the author and owner of the book. Jānis plans to republish the book and is looking for information about the artist Alfreds Kalniņš. Jānis’ e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The other stories and heirlooms were equally significant. For example, Peter Dajevskis brought a wooden bench from the horse-drawn carriage with which his mother, the popular National Theatre actress, Helga Gobzine, had travelled from her home in Western Latvia to the DP camp Meerbeck in the British Zone in Germany during World War II. How the horses and carriages managed to travel on a German army ship is a story all its own. Several people brought beautiful skirts from traditional Latvian folk costumes. As Maija Medne’s family fled from Latvia at the end of World War II, her mother had used the skirt as a bag for packing clothes. Since yarn was very difficult to get in refugee camps after the war, Inta Grunde’s mother had unravelled a family’s heirloom blanket, and used the yarn to weave the traditional skirt. Jolanta Mockas, who brought a set of porcelain coffee cups and pot, which she had obtained in Soviet Latvia after standing in line for hours, represented present day emigrants from Latvia. When she had arrived at the front of the line, she was given a choice of only two things: the coffee set or some plates. As she had neither one, she chose the coffee cup set.
The heirlooms that people took with them from Latvia, could be included in the “Latvian suitcase” exhibit, which LaPa staff are preparing for the celebration of “Rīga – European Capital of Culture” this year. The exhibit is scheduled to open in the former KGB building in central Riga on April 30 and run through September 2014. Any community in North America interested in having a LaPa Roadshow can contact Maija Hinkle, email@example.com or by phone at 607-273-1319.