Riga Castle – Home of the State Museum of Art

In the summer of 1919, the Latvian flag was raised on the tower at Riga Castle when the castle became the property of the Latvian state after World War I and the ensuing period of chaos. The battles for independence continued, however, for another year, and in early 1920, during these unbelievably harsh political and economic circumstances, the Latvian government allocated space for two newly established national museums at Riga Castle: the Latvian State Museum of Art and the State Historical Museum (now the National History Museum of Latvia).

In February 1920, Kārlis Kasparsons, the Minister for Education of the Republic of Latvia at that time, issued an instruction: “To Mr Dzenis, Curator of Cultural Property. I am honoured to advise you that the Cultural Property Collection under your supervision will hereinafter be considered to be a part of the newly established Museum of Art. Please transfer the art treasures under your control to the Ministry of Education and Riga Castle, as instructed by the Art Departament.”1


The space for the State Museum of Art was allocated on the third floor of the oldest part of the building complex, which also included the castle’s former church hall. The museum team – Director Burkards Dzenis, his assistant Konrāds Ubāns and secretary Dāvids Vecaukums, dedicated two intensive years of work to set up the permanent exposition in the relatively unsuitable space. It was then opened to the public on 27th May 1922. A parallel inventory of items in the museum collection was made and new purchases were organized, while the government had to be persuaded that for the creation of the exposition, sufficient funding was required for the restoration and framing of artwork and the preparation of bases for sculptures as well. Furthermore, one-tenth of a cord of wood was required per year for the eighteen heating furnaces at the museum to maintain the required minimum temperature.


In the inter-war period, after repairing the damage, the Latvian government placed several local government and cultural institutions in the spacious accommodation at Riga Castle: the State Chancellery and the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Latvian President’s office and residence after the establishment of the President’s position in 1922. The Latvian State Archive (up until 1930), the Valdības Vēstnesis editorial office and printing house (up until 1938), the Folklore Repository, the Monuments Board and other institutions operated here next to the State Museum of Art and the State Historical Museum. There were also about twenty apartments at the castle: for the President, his Secretary, and employees of the castle and the museums.2 In a sense, the Castle became the “country’s number 1. building”, as official diplomatic receptions for leaders of other countries also took place there. 


The halls at Riga Castle soon became too cramped for the needs of the State Museum of Art from the perspective of the ever-increasing size of the collection of artworks, as well as from prestige. Burkards Dzenis, having been in the Museum Director’s position for more than twenty years, always considered his mission to be to find more suitable premises. Preferably, a purpose-built new building, but, if this was not possible, then a larger space elsewhere, like, for example, the army’s arsenal in Jēkaba laukums (now the LNMA’s Arsenāls Exhibition Hall). His regular correspondence with the Ministry of Education on this matter has been preserved at the Latvian State Archive. In this respect, on 8th November 1929, Dzenis wrote: “Dear Minister, (..) our current space on the third floor of Riga Castle does not correspond at all any more to the suitable placement of museum works, not to even mention the lighting, which is more than inadequate. During the museum’s 10 years of existence, the current space has become so cramped that there are no longer any walls on which to hang the paintings. The following numbers are an illustration of this: there are currently more than 800 artworks in the possession of the museum to be hung on the walls. In calculating the area taken up by each work to be 1 metre on average, the museum would currently need 800 metres, but the museum currently only has 300 metres at its disposal.”3


Additional space at Riga Castle was allocated to the museum in the early 1930s, facilitated by a gift of 43 paintings, 5sculptures and a collection of medals from Belgian artists to the Latvian state. The new Belgian Art Section was unveiled on 15th November 1932 on the second floor of Riga Castle. The State Museum of Art still did not get a new building. In 1941, a restructuring of the Latvian museum system took place along with the change in political power. After World War II, the collection of Latvian and Russian art ended up in the newly established State Museum of Latvian and Russian Art – the former Riga City Museum of Art headed by Vilhelms Purvītis, which in its time, had also obtained an outstanding collection of national art. The LSSR State Museum of Western European Art’s collection, which brought together foreign artworks from the State Museum of Art, the Riga City Museum of Art, the Riga City History Museum, the University of Latvia Museum and others, was opened at Riga Castle in the premises of the abolished State Museum of Art. Later renamed the LSSR Museum of Foreign Art, then the Museum of Foreign Art, it continued to operate at Riga Castle until 2010, when as a result of museum reorganization, it was included within the structure of the Latvian National Museum of Art. The Art Museum Riga Bourse is the direct legacy of the Museum of Foreign Art.     


LSA, 1659. f., 1.apr., 11. l., p. 1.

Caune, Māra. Rīgas pils – senā un mainīgā [Rīga Castle – Ancient and Changing.] Rīga: Jumava, 2004, p. 38. 

3 LSA, 1659. f., 1.apr., 16. l., p. 215.