Ādolfs Alunāns had spoken of the need for a museum of theatre in his couplets (“Alas, compatriots, oh compatriots,/Do make a museum for us./There, our clutter will be on display/And we will be too, along with our mistresses”). The first attempts to collect materials on the history of Latvian theatre took place before 1925, the year when the Riga Latvian Society started collecting documentary heritage as a significant source of national memory.
The initiator and soul of the museum was Hermanis Kaupiņš, who was a public figure. Under his management, a comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the history of theatre was installed at Rīga Castle. The exhibition was opened on 25th November, 1924 – the day when the Latvian Theatre Congress assembled. In 1931, under the guidance of the Theatre Association, the Museum of Theatre was established and installed in six rooms at Avotu iela 34. In 1934, both museums (including the first department: the Rainis Museum in Durbe), were closed after the overthrowing of the government carried out by Kārlis Ulmanis because they were seen as institutions run by social democrats. The valuables of cultural and historical significance remained boxed up and without an owner for two years. In 1936, a decision was taken to combine the collections of the two museums, establishing the Museum of Literature and Theatre in doing so. The new museum was set up on the fifth floor of a building on Krišjāņa Barona iela – a building that currently houses the Museum of Natural History. The museum’s exhibitions took up 11 rooms. Material was collected on literature, theatre and music, as well as visual arts related to the core branches.
In 1940, the museum underwent a reorganisation, but the State Museum of Literature and the Rainis Literary Fund remained active during this period. During the period of German occupation, the Museum of Literature and Theatre was reopened. In 1944, almost the entire staff of the museum fled into exile. Before their departure, they packed up the holdings in the collections; some of them were stored in a bank safe, and some of them were taken to the A. Brigadere Museum at Sprīdīši. When the war ended, the holdings related to the history of theatre and part of the holdings related to music were handed over to the Latvian SSR Museum of History. In 1946, the Rainis Literary Fund became the Museum of the People’s Poet Rainis. From 1946 to 1951, the State Museum of Literature and the Museum of the People’s Poet Rainis were active. In 1951, these museums were merged, establishing Rainis’ State Museum of Literature in doing so. The museum was temporarily housed at the Rīga Castle. In 1964, the director of the Rainis State Museum of Literature, Voldemārs Kalpiņš, succeeded in adding the collections belonging to the art department of the Latvian SSR Museum of History (on the subject of the history of theatre and music) to the Rainis State Museum of Literature. As a result, the Rainis Literature and Art History Museum was established, with 150,000 holdings in total. The museum’s artefacts suffered the most from all these changes – both due to the bad storage conditions and to the repeated reinventorying. After the war, many departments of the museum were opened: memorial museums dedicated to different people. The museum’s collection was expanded significantly during this period, and exceptional artefacts of cultural and historical significance were bought. In 1989, the museum’s collection amounted to 402,000 units. Active collection of the cultural heritage created by Latvians in exile began during the National Awakening. During this period (1989–2011), the collection of culturally significant artefacts created by Latvians in exile added 198,000 artefacts to the museum’s collections. These artefacts came from every continent, from all the places where, as a result of different historical factors, Latvians had found themselves and started creating their own cultural history.