“I am totally nuts, without any hope of getting better. Evil tongues call me a rag-and-bone-man. It would be a little more cultured to say that I am a collector. It began with cigarette packs; then I began collecting bones – any kind, as long as it was a bone. […] I also collected anything that was related to writing, especially manuscripts. That is how the Museum of Literature came to be,” wrote Jānis Greste, who can be considered the founding father of the museum. The Museum of Literature was an offspring from the Natural Sciences Museum. Its founder Jānis Greste (1876 – 1951) was a natural scientist, geologist and chemist, as well as a passionate teacher and organiser. Greste’s talents were many. He wrote captivating and humorous reflections on his adventures and relationships with persons well-known in the field of culture at that time. These were collected in the books Kā dzeņa vēders (1977) and Krist un celties (1990), which were compiled by Līvija Volkova, as well as in unpublished material held in the MLM’s collections.
Between 1907 and 1910, while working at the Trade School on Martas street, Greste laid the foundations for what later became the Museum of Riga Schools. He established an association for people working in the field of museums, and served as its first head. In 1922, he began teaching at the Jelgava No. 2 Gymnasium and working at the Central State Pedagogical Institute in Jelgava. There he installed study rooms for chemistry and natural sciences, both of which were abundant in educational equipment; these rooms later became part of the school museum. Next to the Latvian Teachers’ Association he established the Museum of Pedagogy. In 1925, the museum was restructured, and the Museum of Literature – now the Museum of Literature and Music – was established (on Dzirnavu iela 12/14). The founding of the museum can be traced back to 1925, when Jānis Greste created the so-called Writers’ Corners on the premises of the Teachers’ Association.
The system for filing the museum’s holdings was introduced when the museum’s collection was first created. The system was influenced by the leading school of literary theory according to the pedagogical principles of the time, and it was based on biographical data. The museum continues to use the same system to this day. The Teachers’ Association’s museum collected material both on literature and music, and from that point on, these two cultural sectors co-existed within one collection.
The Museum of Literature’s first exhibition was put together by Greste and was dedicated to Rūdolfs Blaumanis. It included 540 artefacts. Greste turned to well-known Latvian writers of the time and to the relatives of writers who had passed away, asking them to contribute to the Writers’ Corners and donate different items that had been used by the writers; he even promised to provide them with new penholders, pencils, and sheets of paper to replace the ones they donated. Greste’s strategy turned out to be successful – by the end of 1925, the museum’s inventory held thousands of artefacts.
Greste journeyed from Jelgava to Rīga at least twice a week to visit the museum; if one believes his calculations, the distance he had travelled amounted to twice the circumference of the Earth.
Jānis Greste admitted that for his whole life he had been unable to resist his inclination to collect – he collected anything that he came across, and he used the items he found for educational purposes. He even collected a smoker’s lungs and a drunkard’s liver while working at a morgue, with the intention of showing them to his students as a warning. Writers’ manuscripts, writing implements and keepsakes – all items of this kind were collected in order to deepen the understanding of the work of the writer that the items belonged to.