Step into the Latvian Museum in Rockville, and you almost could be in a 19th-century Latvian farmhouse.
Detailed carvings adorn the wooden bed frame and table, and delicate embroidery draws color into clothing and other textiles.
On a wall around the corner, rows of colorful mittens with intricate patterns serve as a reminder of the cultural traditions that arose from the country’s frigid climate.
“Each area of Latvia has its own patterns; they mean different things,” explained Inta Sraders, a volunteer at the museum. “Traditionally, in the good old days, the bride had to knit a pair of mittens for everybody in the wedding party and everybody in her husband’s family. ... A girl had to have lots of mittens.”
Although it consists of only a few small rooms, the museum proudly preserves and retells the story of Latvia, a Baltic country about the size of West Virginia, from prehistoric to modern times.
Keeping the museum up and running is not always easy, however. Peggy Erickson, executive director of Heritage Montgomery, said many small museums cannot stay open, in part due to the cost of maintaining a building.
“If you look across the country, it’s really sad. Some very significant small museums have closed because of operating expenses,” she said.
The Latvian Museum stays open thanks to a close-knit Latvian community in the D.C. area, and welcomes Latvian-Americans and the wider community to learn about Latvian history and culture.
“It really is an incredible little gem,” Erickson said.
Anita Terauds, another volunteer at the museum, pointed to a black-and-white photo of horse-drawn carts with families’ belongings traveling single file down a country road in Latvia about 1944. During World War II, Latvia was annexed first by Soviet Russia, then by Nazi Germany. When Latvians realized that Soviet forces were again coming to “run over” their country, Terauds said, many decided to leave. Terauds was about 10 years old when her family left Latvia.
“I still remember being the only one permitted to sit on top of that,” she said, tapping her finger at a bundle on the back of one of the horse carts. “I was the only one light enough for the horses to pull. Then when the bombers came, everybody tried to find the closest ditch. Of course, the horses marched on.”
When the bombers left, she said, everyone climbed out of the ditch, scrambled to find the correct horse and continued down the road leading away from the oncoming Soviet occupation.
“There were masses and masses of refugees leaving the Baltic states,” Terauds said. “They went to Sweden, they went to Germany — any country that would take them for the time being.”
Sraders lived in West Germany for about six years after leaving Latvia before her family moved to the United States.
“I’ve spent my whole adult life here,” she said. Now, she volunteers at the museum, which chronicles the history of Latvia from ancient to modern times.
Many of the Latvian Museum’s artifacts came from immigrants like Terauds’ and Sraders’ families, who brought a few belongings with them when they fled Soviet rule. Other items were made in America by artisans who used traditional techniques and patterns to craft ceramics and carve furniture for the museum. Others, like antique coins and two modern military uniforms from the Latvian embassy, were donated over the years.
Donations are what keep the museum going — donations of artifacts, donations of money and donations of time by dedicated volunteers.
The Latvian Museum, which opened in 1978, used to be open every Sunday afternoon, but eventually moved to an appointments-only policy.
“It wasn’t worth having the people here, because you’d [only] get a couple people,” Sraders said. The museum tried advertising, but struggled to attract visitors to a residential area without much foot traffic.
Erickson said that for small museums in particular, attracting visitors and funding to stay open is the age-old question.
“It’s not just getting a collection, you then have to think about how you’re going to pay staff, how you’re going to keep it open on weekends,” she said. “... The operating expenses get to be problematic.”
The Jane L. and Robert H. Weiner Judaic Museum is located at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, so it is open whenever the community center is open. The museum, a collection of Judaic antiquities, is located in the atrium outside the Goldman Art Gallery at the community center.
Phyllis Altman, art gallery director, also manages the Judaic museum.
“There are old oil jugs, there are some coins, there is some jewelry, there are menorahs,” she said. All told, the display includes about 100 ancient artifacts.
Another small museum, the Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine, is managed and supported by the Montgomery County Historical Society. It also shares tour groups that come to visit the larger Beall-Dawson House, located on the same property in Rockville. The museum is only one room, but it gives visitors a peek into what a doctor’s office would have looked like in about 1852.
Joanna Church, director of collections for the historical society, said although the Stonestreet museum is small, it houses medical collections from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as information about doctors and pharmacists who practiced locally in Montgomery County and Rockville.
“It’s only a one-room museum, so it’s easy to see everything,” she said.
The Latvian Museum also shares its facilities with like-minded organizations. It is located in the lower level of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Washington, D.C. The building also houses offices for the American Latvian Association and the Joint Baltic American National Committee.
To stay open, the museum depends on volunteers like Terauds, who lives nearby and gives many of the tours.
“She’s the heart and soul of the museum,” said Anita Batarags, president of the American Latvian Association.
Terauds formerly was the secretary general of the association.
“I thought I’d retired, but I guess not,” she said with a shrug.
Despite the difficulty of sustaining small museums, Erickson said there is value in keeping them open.
“There’s pride in community, and people want to show off what was theirs,” she said.
While museums might have an easier time staying open if they combined their funds into one site, communities take pride in their unique, local sites. For example, Montgomery County has three museums dedicated to the history of agriculture, but none of them is likely to give up its site.
“I think it’s admirable, and I think it’s wonderful — pride of place, pride of story,” she said.