Museums of Lithuania and Belarus

In Museums on March 29, 2011 at 11:33 am

I’m just back from a brilliant trip to eastern Europe, taking in Vilnius and Kaunas in Lithuania and Minsk in Belarus. And of course we took in loads of museums whilst there.

Vilnius is really very charming and well worth a city-break. After the fall of Communism in the early 90s the country invested huge amounts of money in revamping the Vilnius old town, so there are many beautifully polished buildings. Yet, behind the facade of the charming squares and narrow old streets there are still many un-polished areas, which I perhaps find even more charming.

The KGB Museum (known locally as the Museum of Genocide Victims) is well worth a visit, with a sensitive and well-presented story of the operation of the Soviet-run state security system in Lithuania. The cells in the basement are chilling and horrific. The National Museum of Lithuania is housed in a very grand and well-restored building and the presentation is excellent, but the quality of the collection perhaps lets it down somewhat. I still enjoyed it though – especially the room full of maps. I love a map.
In Lithuania’s second city, Kaunas, we visited the Devil Museum. No really. It’s a collection started by artist A. Žmuidzinavičius celebrating the many forms the devil takes – by that they mean THE devil, but also devils and little demons, which are popular in Lithuanian folk culture. Following the collection’s donating to the nation on his death, the museum has continued to collect devils from around the world and now has over 2000. It’s actually incredibly well displayed in a charming 1970s concrete building, next door to his old house, where visitors can nosy around his studio.

And then for the big one – over the border to Belarus. People did tend to ask us ‘why have you come to Belarus?’ I’ve always had an interest in eastern European history, especially the former Soviet states. That’s why I enjoyed working at the Wende Museum a few years ago.

Minsk itself is a strange, confusing, yet wonderful place. Essentially entirely rebuilt in the aftermath of the Second World War, it seeks to combine the grand boulevards of Paris with the grandeur of Budapest and the opulence of Vienna. The neo-classical buildings look, from a distance, like the British Museum or the Louvre, but get up close and you realise that they’re built from breeze blocks and the proportions are, in fact, ever so slightly out. Also, take a walk around the back of some of these grand buildings and it’s clear that they’re only normally a few rooms thick. It’s all show. Then there’s the street art – grand mosaics, sculptures, reliefs and seemingly endless plaques on the wall, all showcasing the finest in Soviet socialist-realist art.

The Museum of History and Culture is small, but has some great objects. While the interpretation might leave something to be desired, the effort and will among the staff is certainly there. The Museum of the Great Patriotic War (also known as the Second World War) is a massive exposition of the story of the Eastern Front over two floors of this huge museum. It’s entirely in Russian, but we still managed to spend an hour in there. If you’ve got a reasonably good idea of the history of the conflict, you should be okay.

The National Art Museum of Belarus has an amazing new extension to the rear, full of light and beautiful pieces of local art (we dwelled in the 20th-century galleries, obviously) and is much better than the Modern Art Museum, which doesn’t even make it into the guidebooks.

And to top it all off, we even went to the new building of the National Library of Belarus which is just mind-blowing (below).

All in all a bizarre, yet fascinating, trip.

  1. Just seen this news from Belarus about a blast at the underground station I walked through a couple of weeks ago. Of course Belarus is a hugely unbalanced country, but with such intense levels of state control it certainly feels like a safe country in terms of personal and domestic security. But clearly some people have other idease. Whether it was a terrorist act or an accident, and whether it was in London, Paris, Kabul or Minsk, people’s lives are still lives and it’s still a great tragedy.

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