Madona Regional Studies and Art Museum (MRSAM)

Una Sedleniece, Culture Theorist

Published in visual arts magazine Studija issue No. 72 (June/July 2010).

Translator into English: Filips Birzulis

As regards Stone Age art museums, there is an absence of incontrovertible facts. There is, however, evidence that artists were working at that time. One of the first artists working in the territory of Latvia was a resident of the Madona region – the unknown creator of the Lubāna Apollo.

Near Lubāna, at an encampment on the Abora Rover, archaeologists have found a late Neolithic bone figure, thus far the only one of its kind to be found in Latvia. It terms of popularity it cannot compete with another example of the genre, the spatially and temporally distant Venus of Willendorf in Austria.(1) However, in 2008 our Apollo almost became a media star: it was included in the top thirty list of the visual arts section in the Cultural Canon of Latvia, as an artwork which has been an inspiration in the field of visual culture within the territory of Latvia from ancient times to the end of the 20th century.(2)

There are a couple of dozen museums in Latvia that each have some combination involving the word ‘art’ in their names: ‘history and art’, ‘regional studies and art’ or simply ‘art’ museums. However, even more than their names, museums differ from one another in their carefully crafted mission statements, seeking to answer the question: why is the museum necessary?

The declared mission of the MRSAM as stated on its website is to collect, preserve, study and popularise the natural, spiritual and material assets of Madona rajons (‘district’) and to promote the use of these for the education and development of society, to increase awareness and understanding of local residents about the history of the Madona rajons and its unique contribution to the national culture, as well as to facilitate the utilisation of the region’s resources by the tourism industry and to employ museum resources as part of an active dialogue with residents and visitors to the region.

Following the recent reform of administrative territories, the MRSAM became the property of the new, enlarged Madona novads. The word rajons will undoubtedly be replaced by novads in the mission statement, but otherwise the day-to-day life of the museum should not be unduly affected. Every museum is a long-term project by its very nature, outliving a single human lifetime, and so the collection, as the museum’s foundation and the integral body of gathered testimonies, should not be harmed by administrative reforms.

The MRSAM mission statement makes no direct reference to any particular artistic objectives. However, regional museums must demonstrate real virtuosity in managing the diversity of their collections and activities. Unlike Riga or other capital cities, Madona does not have a plethora of museums for visitors to pick and choose from. The town has only the one, and there aren’t many other museums or multifaceted cultural sites in the surrounding area. However, the Madona region is blessed with Mount Gaiziņš and other attractive natural assets, as well as active tourism, which presumably explains why so many nice hotels and cafes have sprung up in Madona. Thus the need to get involved in the tourism industry as expounded in the mission statement is not just pretty talk, but both a duty and a real opportunity. Hopefully the museum is able to make the most of its unique position among what is on offer in the local culture market.

The centre of Madona is dotted with important public educational and cultural institutions: a music school, cultural centre, library and museum. The town’s public infrastructure is in very good shape, which makes it a pleasant environment for visitors, inspiring faith in local residents and decision-makers alike. During the economic boom years, the public budget gave priority to improving the cultural and educational facilities for children, youth and other local people. At Christmas 2003, the citizens of Madona received a wonderful gift in the form of a new depository building at 12 Skolas iela, giving a home to the local museum’s archaeology, textile, art, literature and other collections. The building also provides a suitable working space for museum staff, as well as a comfortable reading room for visitors wishing to make a closer study of the objects of the collection. The collection of household items can also be examined in the open collection rooms.

In the context of Latvia, a regional municipality investing in the improvement of storage conditions for a museum collection was one of the first positive exceptions. However, ensuring appropriate storage conditions for a collection with more than 123 000 items which form a part of our national memory is not asking for a lot. It is in no way excessive or an unnecessary luxury.

But storage alone is not enough. In order for the collection to truly be put to use, in line with the museum’s written mission statement, for “the education and development of society and to increase the self-awareness and understanding of local residents”, the collected heritage must not only be kept and studied but also interpreted, exhibited and popularised.

A clever and practical architectural plan was realised in 1984, when an outbuilding of the former Biržu Manor was reconstructed as an exhibition hall. Given the address 10A Skolas iela, it featured skylights (a rarity in Latvian museums) and spatial planning that would ensure smooth visitor flow. After more than 20 years of use, the exhibition space is in need of renovation, but on the whole the building functions well.

The ancient inhabitants of Latvia also appreciated the ease and beauty of living in the area around Madona. Currently there are approximately 100 nationally protected archaeological monuments in the Madona novads, including hill forts, settlements and ancient burial grounds, at a level of density which is high on the national scale. Although the Lubāna Apollo is held in the Latvian National History Museum, there is an important archaeological collection also in Madona. A small selection of this collection can be viewed in the permanent exposition on the ground floor of the exhibition building. The exposition seems to have been set up not long after the exhibition hall was opened. It includes various archaeological finds, reconstructed folk costumes, as well as a recently-restored, extremely beautiful and valuable (if slightly confusing in the archaeological context) chest from the MRSAM collection. What is of value here is not the current contents of the chest, but rather its original function – it is an 18th century country nobleman’s travelling chest, a rare example of its period and style in Latvia.

Although the materials on display and the presentation methods used are noticeably dated – its message may seem boring to the modern viewer spoiled by contemporary practices in aesthetics and communication – non-specialists in archaeology can still find their way around thanks to the selection of antique objects displayed and the straightforward, didactic approach. The exposition clearly demonstrates the vital role played by authentic objects in museum communication. A prerequisite is patience and a knowledge of Latvian or Russian, because unfortunately there are no annotations in other languages.

The total display area in the Madona museum is around 400 m2, providing ample space for holding exhibitions for various target audiences. The MRSAM’s exhibitions schedule for this year(3) clearly expresses the purpose entailed in the institution’s name, since in addition to regional studies exhibitions, regular art shows are also held. In addition, besides home grown shows, exhibitions from the Latvian National Museum of Art can also be viewed in Madona.

For the tourism season, from late April to late September, two exhibitions are planned which will tell the intriguing story of an important Latvian resource – forests, the history of forestry in the Madona area and forest research traditions in Kalsnava. The exhibition plans for summer include a personal exhibition by Jānis Anmanis, a show by the ‘Ceramicists of Ķīpsala’, and an anniversary display by the local art group ‘Laisma’. In November MRSAM is to present a personal exhibition by Imants Lancmanis.

The MRSAM’s art collection(4) systematically reflects both the museum’s exhibitions and the artistic processes which have taken place in the Madona novads from the 1950s to the present. The sizeable art collection contains around 1200 items, which have been assembled due to favourable financial circumstances or – more often – the generosity of the owners of artworks. Mostly paintings, watercolours and drawings, it includes works by artists from the region (e.g. Leonīds Āriņš, Alfejs Bromults, Rūdolfs Pinnis and Imants Vecozols), as well as those who have lived or worked locally (e.g. Rita Valnere, Izabella and Gunārs Krollis, Inta Celmiņa and Edvards Grūbe). We can imagine that the collection overall is valuable and interesting. Currently, all information about the MRSAM’s artistic assets is only available at the museum, and is not published in the National Online Museum Collections Catalogue or any other authoritative source. The Madona museum has significant cultural resources at its disposal which should be made more generally accessible to the public and in a more attractive way, through bold marketing, improving the museum’s visual communication and by systematically reducing information barriers.

The museum expedition was fortunate enough to catch the opening of the Art Festival at the MRSMA. An exhibition by local children and MRSMA head Danute Vēze titled ‘For Poultry and People’ was unveiled, while a compelling bird cage making event was held in the museum’s yard. The museum regularly holds exhibitions by local artists, and there is an unwritten law that at the Art Festival locals are given exposure. It was obvious that the Madona children were overjoyed at the chance to hold a real exhibition in a real museum, and the experience will stay with them for a long time, perhaps making its impact felt at some other time and place. Because the knowledge absorbed or skills learned by a museum visitor can far outweigh the intended didactic content of the said museum.(5)

(1) See website:

(2) Diena, 26 November, 2008.

(3) See website:

(4) Mālniece, Vita. Par Madonas novadpētniecības un mākslas muzeja gleznu kolekciju. From: Zvirgzdiņš, Indulis (compiler.). Madonas muzeja raksti. Madona: Madona Regional Studies and Art Museum, 2006,
p 167.

(5) Sal.: Veils, Stīvens E. Ietekme – rezultāta mēraukla (Influence – the Measurement of Results). See the website of the Baltic Museum Studies School: