Kretinga and the surrounding area has long been famous for an abundance of archaeological monuments, valuable ethnographic and folk art, ancient traditions and customs, and talented folk artists.
Explorers and history enthusiasts started taking interest in Kretinga's past, its monuments and objects of material and spiritual value in the 19th century. Collected artefacts showed up in the museums of St. Petersburg, Karaliaučius (Königsberg), Berlin, Įsrutis, Vilnius, Tartu, Liepoja, Kaunas and other towns and cities.
Kretinga residents themselves tried to take an interest in the past of their native district and the surrounding areas. Some of them were satisfying their curiosity by listening to legends, myths, sagas and various stories about ancient times, others immersed themselves in knowledge of archaeology and history and tried to study the past, gather cultural artefacts and explore ancient monuments.
At the end of the 19th century the priest of Kalnalis Church Juozas Žiogas performed archaeological excavations of unmarked burials at Imbarė and Kūlsodis; he collected archaeological finds and other antiquities and accumulated a large collection. At the beginning of the 20th century the ancient burial sites of the Kretinga localities Kiauleikiai, Pryšmančiai, Kretinga and Kartena were explored by Vladas Nagevičius, who became not only a famous archaeologist during the interwar period but also a general of the Lithuanian Army and the founder of Kaunas War Museum. He would frequently visit his native Kretinga and motivated the general public to take a deeper interest in the past of the country, to preserve the cultural heritage, and to gather finds testifying about the past.
A passionate collector, the priest Konstantinas Kuprys-Kuprevičius lived in Kretinga; he was collecting and purchasing archaeological finds and antiques from people and had a large book collection. In 1935 he acquired the priest J. Žiogas’ collection and showed it together with his own collection at an exhibition in Kretinga monastery at the end of the same year. The fate of these collections is not clear. We know that a part of that collection showed up in the Vytautas the Great Culture Museum, and the Šiauliai „Aušra“ and Kretinga museums. The head of Kretinga High School Jonas Kirlys was also fascinated by the idea of collecting printed items and books.
The active public figure, great organizer and educationalist Juozas Žilvitis matured and implemented the idea of the museum. In 1935 under his initiative and with the approval of the County Council the museum was established in two little rooms belonging to the Council. In early 1936 the museum was relocated to a rented building in Kęstučio Street.
During the war the museum was closed but not abandoned to fate. A caretaker’s position was assigned for guarding of the valuables of the museum; other caretakers (teachers) were on duty without pay. After the end of the war from 1945 to 1949 Ignas Jablonskis was the head of the museum. The second stage of the ascent of the museum is connected to his work. Engineer and ethnographer Ignas Jablonskis took decisive economic and organisational action: he repaired the neglected museum building that was damaged during the war, installed a repository of exhibits and prepared the first expositions. At the time great attention was paid to the research of folk architecture. The collected material was later used to include old documented homesteads in the list of rural cultural monuments, thus preserving them from destruction.
The new and intense organisational and creative phase (1960-1975) is associated with the famous scientist and promoter of the Samogitian region J.Mickevičius. Under his leadership, two museum branches were opened: Dimitravo (1964) and the Memorial Museum of M.Valančius (1969). J.Mickevičius devoted 25 years of his life to museology. Many residents of Kretinga remember with love and respect this modestly dressed personality carrying a large brown portfolio with all the Samogitian archives, walking along country paths and lanes painstakingly gathering the history of our country. His observations and collected facts presented in numerous articles are still a refreshing source from which the current museum staff draw their knowledge of the history of Kretinga town or district. The ethnographic heritage of J. Mickevičius enriches the science of Lithuanian ethnography.
In 1977 the museum relocated to the renovated premises of the monastery. This time can be called the fourth period of the museum’s activity; it is related to the adaptation of new premises to the needs of the museum, the creation of new expositions, and the expansion of the museum’s structure. In June 1985 the ground floor of the museum was equipped with a permanent exposition “The History of Our Land from the Oldest Times to the Present“, occupying an area of 784.9 sq. m. In May 1989 a new exposition “Old Folk Art” (334.42 sq. m.) was opened to the public on the first floor of the monastery. In 1985-1989 intense cultural and educational activity took place and was eventually established in the museum, promoting participation of town and country residents in the cultural and scientific processes. In 1986 the folklore ensemble “Volungėlė” was founded.
Vida Kanapkienė has been the museum’s director since 1980.
After Lithuania regained its independence, the monastery was returned to the Franciscans, and it was decided to transfer the Kretinga museum to the Tiškevičiai Palace. The years 1990 and 1991 were particularly difficult. During this period, the museum lost not only the main expositions, but also the affiliates (in 1991 the Town Council management transferred the affiliates to the districts) and the repositories of the exhibits that were installed in the buildings belonging to religious communities.
In 1992 the museum moved to the former Count Tiškevičius palace. A new era began in the development of the museum. New premises were adapted to the expositions and exhibit repositories. New expositions were created, and the museum’s structure was modified. In December 1994 three halls of the “Manor Culture” exhibition and two halls dedicated to the old folk art were opened, and a unique exposition of the nature department was reorganised. During this time, the transfer of departments to responsible employees improved work with exhibits. Explorative work intensified. The museum’s links with the public now included expositions, exhibitions, culture events, educational activities, and excursions.
Since 2009 a project called “Renovation of the historic buildings of Kretinga Manor and its adaptation to tourism” is being implemented. It is funded by the European Union. Many sub-projects have been initiated to repair the ruined buildings of the manor, to renovate them and to adapt them to the needs of museum visitors and tourists. In total, 5 historic buildings have been renovated and 6 new expositions opened: the exposition of the history and culture of the manor, the exposition of the archaeological site “The prehistory of Kretinga Region”, the exposition of numismatics, the Winter Garden (conservatory), the ethnographic exposition “The Circle of the Sun” and the exposition dedicated to the history of the Kretinga region.
The Kretinga Manor historical park has 3 outdoor expositions: in the manor park there is an Astronomical calendar with Sun clock, in the forecourt of the manor there is a “Memorial Trail”, and in the courtyard of the housekeeper's house there are stone sculptures by Stasys Budrikis (from Lenkimai village in Skuodas district) called “Trumpeting Angel”, dedicated to Juozas Žilvitis, “Caring Christ”, dedicated to Juozas Mickevičius, and “Roofed Pillar Cross”, dedicated to Ignas Jablonskis.
Since 2013 the museum has had a Centre for Traditional Crafts that offers a variety of educational programs for visitors.