“I am exactly in the right p(a)lace!”

Ingrida Šilgalytė on finding her calling at Plunge Art Museum

Written and Photographed by Annika Kiehn, February 2022

Last year, I finally had the opportunity to explore the manorial heritage of Lithuania myself, and to my delight, I was joined by Manfred Achtenhagen. He is head of the society for manors and castles in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, one of our South Baltic Manor Project partners. As Manfred and I drove through the district of Telšiai Northwestern Lithuania, heading towards Plungė, we looked at vast fields and thick forests. Occasionally, we drove past a village or small town, mostly an interesting mixture of historic wooden houses and those built in the 1970s that were considered “modern.”—communist pragmatism at its best. We are very familiar with it in the former territory of the German Democratic Republic. While Manfred and I were driving through this super remote area, I started thinking to myself, “What on earth do the young people do here? Do they, just like our youngsters, feel the same desire to escape the boredom and limitations of cultural possibilities?”

Ingrida Šilgalytė could have stayed in the capital city of Vilnius, when she finished her cultural management studies there. But she decided to make a difference in her homestead. Working at the Plungė Art Museum, a melting pot of Samogitian, Lithuanian, as well as international arts and crafts, her energetic spirit promises a worthwhile visit.

Despite being a globetrotter for almost two decades, I have always tried to keep in touch with the region where I grew up. These days, as a journalist, this most eastern province of northern Germany has become my field of expertise like no other, and it gives me a kind of comfort I cherish. In German, we call it “Heimat.” However, it does not refer to the location in which you wish to live. Instead, the word “Heimat” describes the place where you feel a bond with your roots. No matter where you live on this planet, this place is locked up in your heart.

In addition, this might also be true for Ingrida Šilgalytė. When the now 28-year-old left her hometown of Salantai, which is located 20 kilometers away from Plungė town, to study cultural management in Vilnius years ago, her folks predicted, “Once you leave, you’ll be gone for good.” But Ingrida proved them wrong; she returned and worked at the Plunge Museum in the cultural events and educational section. “Living in the capital is always wonderful and exciting, and, of course, for someone like me interested in arts and culture, it is a source of non-stop input. It is easy to live there, but not for me. Here at Plungė, I can express myself,” she says with an eager voice and a big smile. The great white neo-renaissance building from 1879 rises like a phoenix from the ashes. Surrounded by a picturesque park, this manor is a true jewel for art lovers amid the countryside.

As Ingrida showed us around the exhibition at the art museum of Plungė Manor on a bright day in September, we felt a strong energy deriving from a great deal of passion for her workplace. The way she speaks of it makes it perfectly clear to us that this young lady has found her calling in the former aristocratic residence of the Oginskis family, which now serves as a venue for cultural exhibitions and public events.

The white-greyish manor is reminiscent of a long history of endurance. It was home to the Polish-Lithuanian aristocratic family of Mykolas Oginskis, who were the last private owners. The family was of great influence all over Lithuania. Apparently, Mykolas Oginskis died in 1902, and since the couple had no children, his wife Maria decided to relocate to Poland following his death. For the manor, this would herald the beginning of a dark era. In the following years, the grand palace suffered from a long period of abundance and destruction. Its sad zenith came when it was burned down and subjected to vandalism and looting at the end of the Second World War. On the top floor, Ingrida showed us photographs from that time. Given the extent of the palace’s destruction, it’s difficult to believe we are still walking through the same structure today. With a tremendous effort, it had been revived and transformed into a vital and sophisticated house again, for cultural enthusiasts like Ingrida. 

“Living in the capital is always wonderful and exciting and of course, for someone like me, interested in arts and culture, it is a source of non-stop input. It is easy living there – but not for me. Here at Plunge I can express myself.”

Ingrida Šilgalytė – cultural activity manager at Plunge Manor

The estate of Plungė Manor consists of a 52-hectare park. Its solid condition is the result of two miracles, of which the first happened in 1966: Back then, the municipality of Plungė city decided to restore the manor ruin in order to transform it into a schoolhouse. This way, it was guaranteed that the building would be full of life again. After the end of the Cold War at the beginning of the 1990s, the second miracle caused a magnificent change when it was decided to turn the manorial ensemble into a museum for contemporary Samogitian art. It opened its doors in July 1994 and has ever since become a magnet for almost 50,000 visitors per year. 

However, we were curious as to what the term “Samogitian” means. As we learned from Ingrida, it is a special dialect in the Northwestern part of Lithuania, the ethnological region of Samogitia, called Žemaitija in the Lithuanian language. “We are kind of an autonomic province within Lithuania. We had our own dukes (kunigaikštis) back then, our own flags—none of the rest of the Lithuanians really wanted to fight with us,” Ingrida tells us with some kind of pride. “The Samogitian bears, for example, are a long-standing historical indicator of this culture from the 13th century and earlier. There (at Oginskis manor) still stands a big white main gate with two bears holding coats of arms of the owners—the Oginski family. And to show the long history of the family, there are four 16th-century knights in full armor.” Today, she says, there are high aspirations to preserve this cultural heritage, including the creation of a symbolic passport.

Plungė Art Museum contributes to a very special kind of local community in this regard, as it exhibits mainly the works of Samogitian artists. A special festival is held every four years, the World Samogitian art exhibition. We are impressed by the work in this highly and very sensitively restored manor. Around twenty employees now look after the ensemble and their visitors.

Between 2010 and 2015, the interior of the palace underwent another transformation thanks to Lithuania’s financial support and the Structural Funds by the European Union. We walked through perfectly painted rooms and furnished with nice antiques, of which only the library still retains the originals from the former owner. We assume that Mr. and Mrs. Oginskis must have been nice to their workers. That explains why they saved some of the paintings, books, furniture, and other interior details after the place was left without owners and did not sell it on the market like they did with other Zar’s properties. The floors at Plunge Manor are covered with the most marvelous parquet. It seems like the sky was the limit during the process of restoration. The restoration team was able to identify what the place looked like in the nineteenth century thanks to a special treasure they discovered: “In the foundation of the old manor, we found a time capsule with historic plans from the 19th century. It indicated when and where the panels were manufactured, as well as the type of engravings on them. It was in the grand salon downstairs, which once served as a gym in the schoolhouse,” Ingrida explains the makeover process. “All we could find out was that there were eight lion heads on the top ceilings and rosettes as decoration. We created a new concept for the downstairs rooms in the new-renaissance style based on historical information.“

The time capsule was again buried in the garden for future generations, added with informations about the wartime and the newer history of the palace. Moreover, in 2019, the team of the Plunge Art Museum got hold of a copy of Maria Oginskis’s Memoirs, which were published in Poland, where she went to live after her husband died. Along with old photographs, they could read about how she had the place furnished back then. “We know now that she did not like new stuff; she was nostalgic and had bought antiques all over Europe.”

As we walked through each room, we were struck by the eclectic atmosphere created by the harmonious fusion of colorful pieces of historical elements and vibrant works of professional fine art from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Most of the pieces are lent by the artists. During this time, we listened to piano music in the background. To our surprise, we learned that between 1879 and 1902, there was an orchestra school in the manor founded by Mykolas Oginskis. From 1889 to1893, a to-be-famous Lithuanian painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875–1911) studied here. I guess it would suit Mr. Oginskis very much to see the transformation that his former home has undergone. Despite the local arts, we found a stunning exhibition of Dutch contemporary art, which undermines the open-minded spirit of the place, demonstrating that you don’t need to be in the capital to be delighted by local and international Zeitgeist. And we learned that we arrived on the wrong day. It was Tuesday, and we regretted that it was not Saturday. They traditionally held free classical music concerts every Saturday during the summer in the stable, beginning on the last weekend of August and continuing through September. “We are a a lively place, not only a museum.”

For Ingrida, this place seems to resemble the two hearts beating in her chest: one that yearns to discover the world beyond and another that is brimming with devotion and love for her cultural heritage. “I am an active member of the Viking re-enactment movement,” she says and shows us photos on her Instagram account. There, she was seen weaving blankets and skirts in the old traditional way, which she also displayed at various Medieval-festivals. She was also dressed up in historical clothes with matching jewelry, keen to infect others with her passion for Samogitian traditions and love for ongoing patterns. Therefore, one is not surprised to hear that it was actually her who put together the archeological exhibition in the basement. “I am a history nerd; I am not only here to look pretty,” she says with a cheeky grin. “I love to go to Vilnius for a weekend, but here, at the Plungė Museum, I am exactly in the right p(a)lace.”

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