A museum as an island of enlightenment. Signe Baumane

MLM interview series “The Museum of the Future“: Signe Baumane, a prize-winning director of animated movies and a former employee of the Museum of Literature and Music (formerly the Rainis Museum of Literature and Music), currently living in New York, shares her experiences in museums.

What are the most vivid experiences you have had at museums?

I usually become nauseated in museums and churches, which is why I do not stay in either for long. I haven’t quite figured out why I become sick in churches, but walking around a museum is often like walking around a columbarium. Items and objects that once were a part of a life are now pinned to a wall in a fixed position. But there have been two experiences in museums that profoundly changed me.

When I was seven years old, my family and I were returning from Sakhalin on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Every now and then we disembarked from the train and went to see the local towns, which were sunken into the mud. One of those towns had a museum dedicated to Lenin. He had spent a few months there during his exile. The little wooden house with all the objects from his time was open for viewing. I was bored. It was a hot day, and the house was full of dust. It was difficult to breathe. I was just about to faint when I heard the guide speaking about a cuckoo clock (two chains were hanging from it, used for winding the clock, and a cuckoo would jump out every hour). With admiration in her voice, she said, as if it was some kind of heroic feat, that Lenin wound the clock every morning. Then she took the small group to admire Lenin’s stationery, but I stayed by the clock, unexpected enlightenment washing over me. I stretched out my arm and took the chain in my hand. It may have been the same exact place where Lenin took the clock to wind it every morning. My fist touched Lenin’s and we became one. The fact that Lenin had died did not matter. At the time, he was the saint of our country, and for five seconds I, too, became a saint.

The second experience. After graduating from high school around 1982, I worked at the Rainis Museum of Literature and Music. I had to retype the descriptions for the objects at the museum. I was the worst employee in the history of the museum. I don’t know why I was taken for the job. I was clueless about how to use a typewriter, the work did not move forward, and I was dreadfully bored. I arrived for work later and later as time went on. But I never missed lunch break, when the staff of the museum gathered to have lunch together. The conversations during lunch were very lively and educational. Despite the dusty nature of their work at the museum, the staff had an excellent sense of humour. Once, one of them brought Mirdza Ķempe’s love letters to Eriks Ādamsons and read them to us. I had always associated Ķempe with praising the status quo – an excellent poet, but too political for my apolitical nature. But in these love letters, her personal feelings, passions and the torment of doubt poured out in her amazing language. I had not known that famous poets could experience the same kind of emotional torment as I did. I had not known that they slept together or that they were capable of describing this personal experience with such intimacy, veracity and poetry. And Ādamsons replied to Ķempe with a note written on a brown wrapping paper, as if suddenly overcome by the desire to write to her while sitting at a café; at the museum, this note had three drafts alongside it, all written on good paper. Oh, the deepest truth, mixed with theatricality! I, too, wanted to write like that.

Which world museums have inspired you the most?

Maybe the Museum of Natural History in New York or the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum… But, as I said, I do not visit museums on my own accord. When visiting a city, I prefer to wander the streets without a map.

Which museums do you visit most frequently when you are in Latvia?

I suppose out of all of them, I have frequented Pastariņš Museum the most often. Somehow, I always find myself there. I would like to visit the Rothko museum (the Mark Rothko Art Centre in Daugavpils), but somehow, I never manage it.

How do you picture the museum of the future?

It is most important for there to be such a thing as a museum in the future. I like the fact that there are museums. When I wake up in the middle of the night, anxious about the world, I am consoled by the thought that there are museums scattered around the world like little islands of enlightenment and knowledge. But I have no opinions about how to create museums, I have opinions about how to create animations.