New exhibitions in the War Museum in Kaunas

  • 2011-03-23
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

I’D LIKE TO WEAR IT: A month ago, President Dalia Grybauskaite visited the War Museum.

VILNIUS - Vytautas the Great War Museum presents two new exhibitions to mark the 90th anniversary of the museum’s establishment in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city. They are titled “Warfare in Pre-Historic Times” and “History of Warfare of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy of the 13th-17th Centuries.”

“Warfare in Pre-Historic Times” presents mostly items from archeological excavations in Lithuania: hatchets, spearheads, arrowheads, and daggers of the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages. There is also a fragment of a reconstructed wall of the 13th century’s wooden castle presented in this exhibition. Mannequins of Lithuanian soldiers dressed and armed in the style of the 13th century show that soldiers of pagan Lithuania looked no different from the rest of European countries. Otherwise, pagan Lithuanians would not have been able to destroy the town of Warsaw, or to conquer vast lands of modern-day Belarus and other lands of Christian Orthodox Slavs.

“History of Warfare of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy of the 13th-17th Centuries” also shows guns, including cannons, as well as maps of the Lithuanian state territory reaching the Black Sea, and paintings of Lithuania’s victorious battles: against the Germans and other Western Europeans in the Battle of Grunwald/Tannenberg (or Zalgiris in Lithuanian) in 1410, against the Russians in the battle of Orsha in 1514, and against the Swedes in the Battle of Salaspils/Kircholm in 1605. The exhibit rejects the picture of Lithuanian soldiers presented by classical Poland’s pre-WWI literature and Polish movies of the 20th century, where Lithuanians are presented as poorly dressed and poorly armed savages. Actually, the Lithuanian army was no different from Western European armies. Since the 16th century, Lithuanians were already rather unwilling to mobilize their own people and a big part of Lithuania’s army consisted of professional mercenaries from Western Europe as well as Muslim warriors brought from the outskirts of the Lithuanian empire.

Apart from these two exhibitions, the museum’s usual exhibits are on show: they start with the German-language version (printed in 1676) of the world-scale impact, book Artis Magnae Artilleriae, written in the Netherlands by the Raseiniai region-born Lithuanian Kazimieras Simonavicius (also known as Kazimierz Siemienowicz) and published in Amsterdam in 1650 (it was the first book about multi-stage rockets – Simonavicius’ ideas are still used in space travel missions and the military industry), and finish with the remains of the airplane Lituanica, flown by two Lithuanian pilots who in 1933 tried to fly from New York to Kaunas and crashed in Prussia, quite close to their destination. The pilots, Darius and Girenas, as well as their Lituanica, are depicted on the 10 litas banknote, while the Vytautas the Great War Museum and its surroundings are depicted on the 20 litas banknote.

The idea to build Vytautas the Great War Museum came into the heads of Lithuanian army officers in 1919, i.e. soon after the re-establishment of Lithuania’s independence. It was built very solidly and its concept somewhat reminds one of the Royal Museum of the Army and Military History in Brussels. Vytautas the Great War Museum was opened in 1936. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, commemorating all those who perished in post-WWI independence wars against Soviet Russia, Poland and the joint army of white Russians and Germans (cannons confiscated from this army are placed outside, near the museum’s entrance) stands in front of the museum.

When the museum was built, Count Tiskevicius presented sculptures of lions, which he brought from his estate in the historically Lithuanian ethnic lands near the town of Astravas (now Ostrovets in Belarus, which then, in the 1920s-1930s, used to be part of the Vilnius region, and was occupied by Poland). Lions stand next to the cannons outside, near the entrance to the museum. The 35-bell carillon situated in the tower of the museum was completed in Belgium in 1935. After restoration in 2005-2006 by a Dutch master, the carillon has 49 bells and every day at midday the Lithuanian war song Don’t Cry, Mother is played there. The museum shares its building with the national art gallery of paintings by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911), who created his masterpieces in the styles of symbolism and art nouveau.

Vytautas the Great War Museum is open on Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10:00-17:00 until March 31. Starting from April 1, it will also be open on Sundays from 10:00-17:00. Tickets can be purchased until 16:30.