War Museum, Riga

   - darkometer rating:  4 -
A well-established museum in the Old Town of Riga that presents the war history of Latvia (and the country has seen more than its fair share of wars over the centuries!).
It's a classic war museum where artefacts (old weapons etc.) play a more important role than background information or interactive hi-tech.
Fortunately, there's a certain focus on the 20th century, i.e. parts of history that are of more relevance to the dark tourist than the older ones. But the museum could do with catering for non-Latvian-speaking foreign visitors better.     
What there is to see: The Riga war museum is housed in a massive old brick former powder tower from the 14th century and as such is quite a landmark to behold.  
Inside you find an old-fashioned kind of war museum, in terms of exhibition design, and also a bit of Soviet-era deja vu in that there are lots of museum wardens (mostly elderly ladies) who not only watch your every step intently but at times even follow you around! It might be a little disturbing to some visitors.
Another aspect you quickly notice that is not exactly perfect is the fact that the texts in the museum are mostly in Latvian only. There are laminated sheets in several places that provide some translations into English, but these are a bit fiddly being chained to their boxes. And often they provide only part of the information, not full translations. But never mind. It's better than nothing. Apparently you can also hire audio guides or even go on a live guided tour.
But I was quite glad I didn't do either, because there were several sections in this museum that I found positively boring and was therefore keen to just rush through. That included, obviously perhaps, all the “old stuff”, i.e. the pre-WWI sections.
Things picked up a little with the WWI section, which started with coverage of the Sarajevo assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip (cf. also Vienna's Military Museum). But then quickly deteriorated into concentrating too much on a) hardware (guns, uniforms, helmets, models) and b) old photos. 
The trenches section was a bit better, and the hospital part almost scary … one of the dummy nurses looked more like she was garotting the poor dummy wounded soldier rather than bandaging him. 
The section on the inter-war years obviously places a lot of emphasis on Latvia's brief period of independence during which the country also had its own military, so plenty of Latvian colours, uniforms and yet more old photos are displayed here.
The WWII section covers both the first Soviet occupation of Latvia and the Nazi period. The latter also includes a subsection on the Holocaust, complete with the obligatory display of a striped uniform of a concentration camp inmate, yellow stars and signs and documents in German.
In addition you can see several mock-ups with dummy soldiers fighting in the forests of the Baltics. But the coverage extends to other theatres of WWII as well, even including a short bit on Japan
A remarkable artefact on display here is a Japanese flag with lots of writing on it. As one of those laminated info sheets in English explains, this flag was given to a Latvian doctor who treated Japanese POWs in a camp on the Russian far-eastern island of Sakhalin. The writings are both wishes and signatures. It was kept secret for 40 years before being displayed here.
The Soviet era post WWII is predictably given an especially large section, with a suitably grim focus on Stalin and his reign of terror. Plenty of Soviet propaganda posters are on display, though information as to what they are saying is notably scarce, which is a bit of a shame. 
Still, some of the Soviet-era artefacts, trinkets, furniture, appliances (especially that TV set with a magnifying lens in front! … cf. Medical Museum) and the general deco in this part do have a certain retro entertainment value. 
The road to independence is understandably also given quite a lot of space in this museum, including ample coverage of the Riga barricades and the whole protest movement (also in the neighbouring countries Lithuania and Estonia). But again, information in English is painfully sparse, so if you want to learn about these things you'd be better off in the Occupations Museum and the Museum of the Popular Front
Finally there is a small section on the top floor that celebrates Latvia's membership of NATO (by displaying flags, uniforms and photos – but basically no textual information). 
Back en route downstairs you can also look at the glass display cabinets in the stairwell with countless model tanks, guns, ships, and other war toys, if you are so inclined. 
Overall, the museum is more geared towards people who are content with just looking at things, as in objects – in particular military machinery – but also at old war photos, uniforms and such like. Those seeking lots of background information will more likely be much less impressed. This is not really an educational museum, but a visual one. So not for everyone. But some dark tourists will not want to miss it. 
Location: right in Riga's Old Town at the north-western end of Vaļņu iela.  
Google maps locator:  [56.9512, 24.1087]
Access and costs: very easy to find, free. 
Details: the old powder tower is easy to spot as you enter the Old Town of Riga from the main entry points at the bottom of Brīvības boulevard. Just head right at the first street in and you're there after 200 yards. The nearest public transport would be either the trams that stop at the opera or the buses that go along Raiņa boulevard.
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. between April and October, only to 5 p.m. in the winter months.
Admission free
Time required: depends a lot on how much you are into war-toy displays of any kind; if that's your kind of thing then you could probably spend something like three hours in here, if not longer. I only stayed about one hour to an hour and a half, but then again it was the last of the many museums in Riga that I visited and I was probably beginning to suffer from museum fatigue by that point. 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Several other museums that cover parts of Riga's and Latvia's troubled 20th century history in more depth are all within walking distance from the War Museum.
First of all there's the Occupation Museum, currently housed just on the other side of the former bastions to the north-east (but set to move back into the middle of the Old Town soon). This, as the name implies, focuses on the two Soviet occupations of Latvia but also that by Nazi Germany
The Museum of the Popular Front places greater emphasis on the way in which the second Soviet occupation was finally overcome in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 
And the Museum of the Barricades picks out as it sole focus the most dramatic events in that process, the Riga Barricades of January 1991.  
For more dark sites further away from the Old Town see under Riga in general.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Being located at the main gateway to Riga's Old Town, the War Museum blends in perfectly with all the typical mainstream tourism attractions of such a historical place. In fact it is so popular that it can itself count as part of the standard tourism portfolio at least as much as that of dark tourism.   
  • Riga war museum 01 - in the old powder towerRiga war museum 01 - in the old powder tower
  • Riga war museum 02 - boring older war historyRiga war museum 02 - boring older war history
  • Riga war museum 03 - WWI beginsRiga war museum 03 - WWI begins
  • Riga war museum 04 - funny helmetsRiga war museum 04 - funny helmets
  • Riga war museum 05 - life in the trenchesRiga war museum 05 - life in the trenches
  • Riga war museum 06 - bandaging or garottingRiga war museum 06 - bandaging or garotting
  • Riga war museum 07 - defending independenceRiga war museum 07 - defending independence
  • Riga war museum 08 - but then the Soviets cameRiga war museum 08 - but then the Soviets came
  • Riga war museum 09 - and then the Nazis - bringing along the HolocaustRiga war museum 09 - and then the Nazis - bringing along the Holocaust
  • Riga war museum 10 - artefactsRiga war museum 10 - artefacts
  • Riga war museum 11 - English-language sheets providedRiga war museum 11 - English-language sheets provided
  • Riga war museum 12 - message in a bottleRiga war museum 12 - message in a bottle
  • Riga war museum 13 - Soviet era sectionRiga war museum 13 - Soviet era section
  • Riga war museum 14 - independence at lastRiga war museum 14 - independence at last
  • Riga war museum 15 - glass cabinets full of war toysRiga war museum 15 - glass cabinets full of war toys

© dark-tourism.com, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

Cookies make it easier for us to provide you with our services. With the usage of our services you permit us to use cookies.
More information Ok Decline