Museums and young people are still a thing? L’esperienza di Žaklīna nel museo di Alūksne New Castle

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My dear Žaklīna and I became very close friends during this Erasmus and when I learnt that we had some interests in common I asked her to answer some – perhaps a little too many – questions.
She accepted the “challenge” with a Latvian spirit and Mediterranean radiance and I am happy to present you the result of this precious exchange.

Tell something about you: introduce yourself, your country, your city, your study, and formation.

I am Žaklīna Stricka, I am 22 years old and study Communication Science, Media, and Public Relations, but in recent years I understood that my passions in life are related to different sciences and fields, for example, I am more interested in tourism. Maybe because in my small town it started to develop very fast during the last 10 years and I see a lot of new people and foreigners who are interested in my culture, Latvia, my region, my town even more and more. Latvians are patriots about their culture and their belonging to some particular place. I am proud of my small town and I want it to gain more popularity. 

I found an internship opportunity in my town’s museum last year and understood that museums are brilliant places, where to work! Working for the museum made me learn new things about my town and region, history, and cultural values that can be found in these places. It made me closer to tourism in general, to understand how tourism is working.

Speaking about Latvia – the Republic of Latvia is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It is one of the three Baltic countries – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. These countries are usually seen together as one group, but these three countries have some important historical, cultural, and other differences. Culturally we are closer to Lithuanians. For example, we (Latvia and Lithuania) are only two countries in the world who speak Baltic languages – it is a separate branch in the Indo-European language family. But with Estonians, we are closer if we speak about the historical and political background. 

Latvia is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, Belarus to the south-east, and shares a maritime border with Sweden to the west. Latvia has 1,957,200 inhabitants and a territory of 64,589 km2. Latvia is a member state of the EU since 2004 and every year we try our best to reach a better and better level of well-being. Speaking about my little town – we are around 8000 inhabitants, but or place is becoming very popular, we have kind of image of rural, romantic, peaceful destination for an inhabitant from a big city who is tired of the fast rhythm of life, who is seeking the charm of nature, historical vibe and chilling mode in a place where no one is in hurry but is just enjoying the best that weekend experience can give. And our municipality authorities are trying to take and develop every opportunity that we as the town can use for creating the best version of what we can offer, how we can meet people. 

You know, it is hard to make people, especially from more far destinations, from same Italy, to love unknown northern country Latvia. Latvia has lived in the Soviet Union and gained independence only some decades ago and is trying it’s best to fit in the best shape of the political, economic situation, for example. It is hard for foreigners to see that Latvia is worth it to visit! We need to work 10 times harder than every central Europe or Old European country to catch attention and make people believe that yes, Latvia or my, Žaklīna’s little town Alūksne is super! But one is clear – when you see it, you cannot forget it anymore. Latvia maybe doesn’t have mountains, waterfalls, caves, or other very impressive places, but Latvia, Alūksne has something! That is for sure! Every country on this planet has its “wow!” moment. It is the story of being able to find it.

What is your job now?

My job is a tourist guide in Alūksne New Castle, where Alūksne Museum is located. But since we are not a “big museum in a big city”, we can be very “universal” and do a lot of things. At the same time, I do a lot of non-work-related things.

Aluksne New Castle

Our museum is specialized in various fields – of course, we offer tourism, we guide people in museum’s 11 exhibition rooms, we offer to guide in Alūksne Manor park, we offer wedding programs where Barons von Vietinghoff’s participate (Barons Vietinghoffs owned Alūksne Manor for more than 3 centuries, so it is an important part of our history there). We offer museum-pedagogical-educational programs about various themes for school children, of course, our museum has the collection, where historian and other specialists work to keep items from different times. We make 2 – 4 new exhibitions every year to vary our offer, this is a job of exhibition curator. The museum is responsible for different activities or events in town, that we need to organize, for example, in summer, the most recent event was organizing Summer Solstice celebration activities, that are related to folk traditions (dance, music and food). The basic element of this celebration is to see the sunrise on the 21st of June. In Latvian folk traditions, this date is important, because then the night is the shortest in the whole year, and meeting the sun is a blessing moment that is associated with magic beliefs. For example, if you see the sunrise on the 21st of June, you will be healthy, pretty, and clever all year. It sounds like pagan traditions and craziness, but it is part of our ancient culture and Latvians are proud of it! It is not that much about the sun, but the event – people nowadays, in this busy world, have one brilliant morning in summer where they can come together, do various, very Latvian activities, sing, dance and feel very close to nature and traditions. They can do it together, with strangers, with people, who they don’t even greet every usual morning maybe. It is nice, it makes us better people.

But speaking about museum… Covid-19 virus crisis made an impact also on us. This year we reduced the amount of our offered activities and, for now, we only do tourist-related activities. We will see how things will go, for sure. 

But this is not all that museum teaches me every new day. You need to be very business-like if you work in a small museum. You need to know basic hospitality skills, you need to develop an understanding of how to serve a table, you need to clean exhibition rooms, watch that vitrines are always clean. If you see some problem, for example, annotations are not in the right exhibition room, no matter, if you are curator, guide or work in the ticket office, the museum is like your home, if you see the problem, you need to take care of it and fix it. So, I can say, that we try to be very universal and take care of the place that is like our second home.

In which museums have you worked? What is exhibited in those museums? Are they important in your country? What do you have to do, exactly?

So yes, you see that I work in a not big museum but it is a museum that is medium, I mean, you can find similar museums in almost every city or town in Latvia. Of course, in the capital city, we have museums that are completely different – they are financially stronger, have different state support, have different organization levels and people work there in more official positions and maybe do one work, one job. We cannot compare state museums to the town’s museums. Never! Of course, state museums in the capital city, for example, National Art Museum or National History museum are very important for the country. They are responsible for the country’s image, show the level of consciousness about culture importance, and at what level state feels responsible for saving culture for the present and future generations. 

Museums, in general, are one of the main places, where we can take trustful knowledge of everything we have or had – art, history, everything. Museums are like Meka for knowledge in every society! Who else, if not the museums, will care about knowledge, about the time where we live now, where we used to live. Museums have a very important role in society, they can form opinions and can be used to understand the past. Museums have incredible value. And you can only imagine how valuable it is to have at least one museum in your city or town. They are like places, where we can collect information about everything that characterizes a particular place, even the smallest one. Countries culture is every town’s, every village’s, every place’s culture. You can see now the importance of small and medium museums in each country. Together they make the big image. 

My museum also takes care of my town. We have exhibitions about local history, archaeology, folk traditions, we have exhibitions also about art. What makes us special is that most of our exhibitions speak about people who were born in Alūksne, but made cultural heritage in the country’s context. For example, painter Leo Kokle is a nationally important artist and we have small collections of his works. Other works you can find only in Riga (capital city of Latvia) museums or private collections. In that context we are unique. 

How come they hired you?

I was looking for an internship, I needed to be close to my home last year during summertime, so I went there. I proved that I can adapt very quickly in a museum environment and for that time, they didn’t have exhibition curator, so they gave me a great chance to understand curator profession and with the help of them, I did this job for summertime parallelly to my internship, where I did more communication and media-related duties. This year they found a curator for a full-time job, but I work this summer more like a tourist guide. They knew me and I knew them, so they offered me a job this summer again and we work together again.

Have you ever had an idea and a desire to work in museums?

I think I never had the idea that I will work for the museum, but I have always been excited about history, art, archaeology, restoration, folk traditions, folk art. Later, when I was around 12 years old, I found TV documentaries about the curator’s job, about people who work in museums, how they make exhibitions, how people guide tourists, how they work with saving historical items. The museum is the place that somehow connects all my interests. The work process is exciting for me. Of course, all documentaries showed work in Europe’s best and greatest palaces and museums. I was fascinated by that and I wanted to do similar things in my life. Now I have started with something very simple and small, but I have goals.

Unfortunately, when I finished high school, I decided to study something completely different, but now I guess I am back to my childhood dreams. When I do museum work, I feel I have value, I have something good to share with people who visit a museum in the palace and I do my best for them to make them feel great after visiting a museum. 

Do you see it as the job of your life?

Probably!

Do you think it is a job suitable for young people?

Yes. Especially if you are interested in it, then it is even more than just suitable. 

Describe the types of work in museums, especially those that young people might like most.

Of course, managing social media accounts, organizing different events, guiding tourist groups. Very valuable experience is the exhibition-making process – from the very beginning (idea, brainstorming till the final moment when you say thanks to artist and give final reports about the exhibition and (for example, how many people visited it). 

Are there other young colleagues or is it just you?

Well, people, in general, have a very pitiful opinion about museums, especially small or medium museums. They usually ask – what I will see there, it will be interesting? This question shows us, that there is no conviction that it is possible to see something important in a small or medium museum. People have also stereotypes about museums – that these places are in terrible silence, in old palaces, there are aggressive ghosts, you will meet an old, sullen lady, who is not interested in showing you something and you kind of feel guilty for disturbing her. But it is not the truth. It maybe was in the past like that. Museums now are interesting places. In my museum, I am the only one from university, but museum people with whom I work together are not more than 50 years old. We are young people and we give opportunities to young people. Every summer my museum offers a one-month job in a museum for high-school students. We need helping hands, but they can get guiding experience or work experience in the ticket office. During summers we have a lot of visitors and in my museum, we practice that for every visitor we have like one guide-companion who walks with them and tells basic facts about every exhibition or answer the questions. 

We need people who can guide these visitors and students are also really willing to work. Benefits are for both sides – students gain job experience, the museum has employees. The summer season is the time when we need to work as much as we can because in the winter season is not that busy in Latvia’s tourism. I believe and I know that in other museums in Latvia also young people work, that is for sure. 

Is your work paid properly?

I mean, I am ok with my salary, I keep in my mind that I am not a professional, I just learn. To be honest, as I do this job from heart, I do more than needed – some things in our lives are not about money, everything cannot be paid. 

Can you reconcile working hours with study, relationships, and passions?

I work in summers. Summertime is the busiest time for museums because people travel a lot. We work officially from 10:00 clock to 18:00, weekends we have a different schedule, but almost every time it takes extra hours. I am very busy during working hours and work with people takes a lot of energy. After arriving home, I have limited time for other activities. To be honest there is not enough time for everything.

What is a museum for you?

The museum is like a hotel. You come to experience service and a great time. The only difference is that after this great “vocation” you come out with knowledge and remember at least one fact from one or another exhibition. And in the best scenario – you remember your guide-companion as a great friend who you can contact any time when there is a need for it. I have had cases that visitors leave their contacts because they know and can introduce me with one or another artist, or I ask their contacts in cases if I don’t know the answer to one or another question. Then I study museum materials and prepare an answer to their question and send information. This is an example of a qualitative relationship with visitors. With some visitors I even became friends and we are still in contact. 

Tell us about some experiences entering a museum both in Latvia and abroad: since you work your relationship with these places has changed, are you more aware?

I am not an expert, so I won’t start here to make an academic analysis of how museums work :D. There is also the difference in how we see and visit museums – as outsiders or insiders. I can not judge how foreign museums work from “insiders” position, I haven’t been and worked “inside” in foreign museums. Most of the people who visit museums are in an outsider’s position, I could say that I still belong to this position. Of course, I can see some differences, but I strongly believe that this interview is not the best place and time to share my observations.

Do your friends and young people you know appreciate museums and exhibitions or do they consider them boring and uninteresting?

Well, the general perception is that small or medium museums are boring and nothing happens there, actually, I also had this perception before starting to work. I believed that exciting things happen only in big, state museums, but now my thoughts are different. My friends are aware of what I am doing, they have a better image of museum work since they have a friend like me, but usually, people are surprised about my choice. They never ask me but I can read from their faces that they don’t understand why exactly I work for a museum and at what level this job can be exciting. I mean, you can understand how interesting museum work is, only by joining this environment.

What types of exhibitions do young people like most?

It depends on a person’s interests. A lot of people, no matter, how old, like digital exhibitions or the ones that are modern, technologically interesting, for example, some days ago I was in an exhibition where Latvian greatest paintings were made like “live” and objects and subjects move in paintings. It was very interesting, unexpected and also it allows us to admire how technological solutions nowadays can give a second breath to things which are classical, familiar, or well known for us. Young people appreciate the quality and presence of three elements – sound, image, and engagement, something that gives the experience additional value, leaves you surprised.  

In Latvia or in the places you have visited, are tickets or fares too expensive?

Prices in Latvia are very democratic in my opinion, the same experience I have also while visiting, for example, Cyprus museums. Culture needs to be available for everyone, I think Latvia is good in following this conclusion.

Have you learned any visitor engagement techniques in recent years? What’s your style?

In my museum, we practice the style when every tourist group, family, or individual has its guide-companion. We walk in exhibitions together and I tell them the facts and information related to every exhibition. We have together 11 exhibitions and every guide needs to know basic facts about exhibitions. The first rule – you need to have basic knowledge, you need to know the story of every room. The second rule, every visitor needs to be waited, special and he or she needs to feel most important. For example, knowledge about exhibitions is not enough, you need to develop hospitality skills, you need to ask how visitors feel, you need to show where bathroom or drinking water is. These are basic examples. Then sometimes we use “white lie” to engage more inert visitors, who are not that open-minded. Our museum is in the castle and this castle has a balcony. If you see that person is too observant to communicate with a guide, you can say to him or her: “Usually we don’t show this balcony to visitors, but for you, we will make an exceptional case”. This makes a person feel very special, they become more friendly. The third rule – you need to know where this person is from. And additionally – you need to know this place or events that happen there. People like you more, if you know something about the place that is special for them. 

This is not a style, just need to be friendly, kind, conversant, and actually, very important – you need to love tourists, you need this willingness to share knowledge, spread positive energy and be open-minded to everyone. You never know who you will meet and people are so interesting!

Oh, I can add something – doors need to be open, lights need to be switched on and in exhibition rooms, you need to put some appropriate music. Musical sounds can break all borders, make the atmosphere cosier and people feel more comfortable.  

The identikit of the perfect guide.

Kind, diplomatic, interested in, passionate about what he or she does, has hospitality skills, and loving nature. 

Do you have any advice for young people who want to approach the world of museums, both as visitors and as “insiders”? 

Everything starts with interest. The best advice – be open-minded to different things and situations and they will show you the best side and you will see and experience a lot and even more. 

Credits for the pictures:

Article of Edoardo Batocchi