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.”