Soul Food from Hugo Scheu
Words and photographs by Annika Kiehn, Dec 2021
In touch with 18th century everyday culture from Lithuania Minor
Isn’t it true that each of us has a small collection of things we like? When we hand them to the next generation or sell them on eBay or at a flea market, we all add up to a living museum of cultural goods and traditions, which keeps rotating from one person to another. The German manor owner, Hugo Scheu, was positively obsessed with East Prussian culture, and it is through his efforts we can learn what life was like in the 18th and 19th centuries in the region of Silute.
A stranger‘s eye is more likely to detect beauty in an unfamiliar setting. Or, in my case, the absence of having lived abroad for more than a decade away from my hometown has shaped my way of perceiving my hometown with a fresh attempt. I had grown fond of collecting stories from inhabitants, and I started to look out for crafty people in order to collect their art, ceramics, or even hand-knotted rugs. The latter is a long-standing tradition called “Freester Fiscrteppiche.“ Moreover, it is most astonishing to me that it has existed for almost 100 years right in front of my doorstep, and I only found out a few years ago. Having developed an absurdly strong interest in manorial heritage has brought me to even more places and stories and helped me better understand this region‘s history.
Hugo Scheu had a keen interest in 18th-century Lithuanian and East-Prussian cultures
Being a big fan of flea market culture, I have an innate desire to collect and preserve artifacts. I once wrote an article about Swedish loppis culture, specifically their love for secondhand culture, because it astounded me how much bargain hunting is a serious part of their everyday mentality—so much so that people told me they leave work earlier to make it to the place in time when new stuff hits the shelves. This phenomenon has become so serious that it has become a field of social sciences, even at the University of Gothenburg. According to professor Staffan Appelgren, flea market culture is sort of an everyday museum. Because people always take an interest in the same kinds of items over and over again, these items add up to preserve a kind of national identity. It is their status of appreciation that derives from a common sense of value. As a result, everything vintage has become valuable these days, such as vintage furniture, Hasselblad cameras, or VW combis.
Hugo Scheu, a German physician and farmer, became a now-famous stranger and collector after developing a keen interest in the 18th-century Lithuanian and East-Prussian cultures. Born in 1845 in the then-named Memel town, which is now known as the city of Klaipeda, he grew up in a wealthy family, as his father had made a fortune as a merchant.
In 1889, his father bought Gut (manor) Adlig Heydekrug in today‘s small town of Silute. When Hugo Scheu was a young man, his father appointed him administrator of the estate. This position allowed Hugo Scheu to witness the daily life and habits of so-called “ordinary people.“ Their way of life and culture was modest but rich in traditions.
However, that changed abruptly at the end of the 18th century, when the industrial revolution upended people‘s lives. Thus, the impact of this thriving era led to the loss of old traditions and habits. As a result, people moved to the city and abandoned life in the countryside, which was laborious and harsh. Hugo Scheu witnessed this development with sadness, fearing the loss of identity and uniqueness.
Exhibition of Lithuanian and East-Prussian culture
Eager to preserve what was bound to vanish forever, he started collecting everyday items, such as furniture, cutlery, hats, shoes, belts, and other items used to carry out daily tasks. He was also interested in maps, books, and documents. As a result, he spared two rooms in his family‘s manor in Silute to establish an exhibition of Lithuanian and East-Prussian culture. Moreover, since he was an active member of several scientific associations, it was easy for him to attract the interest of intellectuals and scientists who would also spread the word about him. As the museum director tells us: “Hugo Scheu was a well-respected man who had a witty and friendly way of life, which attracted his contemporaries. He was curious, but whatever he did, he did it thoroughly. His diligence can be seen as one of his most precious characteristics.“ Perhaps it was his eye for ordinary extravagance and beauty that was needed to maintain such a collection. Scheu‘s ambition to preserve the lifestyle of a now bygone era of East-Prussian traditions has resulted in a legacy of approximately 60,000 items.
These are presented in the Hugo Scheu museum in Silute. Scheu also established a vast collection of antique books, later given to the University of Kaunas. The manor itself is beautifully restored and holds on to Scheu’s legacy. This place resembles a time travel into Lithuania’s rural culture. It is obvious that the people who work at the museum are proud to manage such a treasure. According to Markus, “Scheu was the first person to open up a museum in the Klaipeda region. His collection is of an admirable size, and I guess other museums throughout the country would be glad to have such an archive of our culture.“
After Hugo Scheu‘s wife died after giving birth to their third child, he never remarried, and he raised his children alone. Scheu died in 1937, and his grandson, Werner Scheu, abandoned the estate to live in Germany. The museum and the manor were robbed and worn down by the Soviet Army. In February 1945, the new manager, Martynas Toleikis, wrote: “Most of the exhibits have been dropped on the floor and mixed with trash.“ Luckily, Mr. Toleikis was appointed Silutes ethnographic museum chief keeper, and the house became the property of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences. Fortunately, most of the collection was saved.
However, hard times followed, and the museum‘s existence was severely endangered as politicians were uninterested in maintaining it. Only after Lithuania gained its independence in 1990 was the archive transferred to the Silute county municipality, which reopened it as the Silute museum. In addition, the administration started to build up a museum network, including Bitenai, Sveksna, Zemaiciy, Naumiestis, and Macikai villages, to show the all-around development in this region.
The most important date for the Hugo Scheu‘s museum remains probably the 30th of May 2015—the day the pale-blue building officially reopened its doors to the public during Šilutė town festival. The manor house, covered in fresh baby-blue paint, opened its doors again, now named the Hugo Scheu Museum. The entry room greets you with a vivid greenish floral design, and the first two rooms on the first floor show a detailed selection of items that tell the story of the town of Silute and the region.
Hugo Scheu Museum Šilutė
Later in his life, Hugo Scheu‘s became the city’s head. As walk around, we get to know that Scheu had a very empathetic nature. Even as a landlord, he had already made a difference to his workers by sparing pieces of land for them so they would maintain them by themselves. Additionally, he spared land for the city to set up important buildings like the church, hospital, and fire station, most of which are still present to this day.
Today, you will find a neat manor that houses the former belongings of the family, such as 17 paintings, which have been well restored. Photographs show the members of the family. The Hall of Frescos on the second floor is a highlight, having been meticulously restored in its pastel colors. “They were hidden under seven layers of wallpaper,“ Markus says. Nobody knows what is depicted in the drawings, but their beauty is now used in wedding ceremonies or small events.
When one considers the difficult political times that this Lithuanian region has been through, one can only thank Hugo Scheu for his visionary mind to preserve some of the vanishing cultures for future generations. A restoration center right located next to the museum in the old barn, fulfills the ongoing tradition of preserving. Textiles, metal and documents are constantly being restored to be exhibited in the museum.
However, with the rising digitalization, I sometimes wonder what to keep for the younger generation—such as a tape recorder or my children’s book from GDR-times. I am not sure if they take an interest in it, but letting go of them seems to erase a time that is part of me and will never return. And to some extent, the minimalism trend worries me—it is certainly positive to stop consuming new stuff. But the extreme banning of all things that could represent ourselves, our culture, and our state of mind seems like an odd path to me. To me, owning nothing means throwing away what touches our souls in a weird way. And if our soul is trained not to be delighted by crafts and, sometimes, even kitsch, when we give away everything that could be meaningful because it is considered a burden, what is life then, I wonder?
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