Strategies of Opening and Openness in Lithuanian Museology
Strategies of Opening and Openness in Lithuanian Museology

Strategies of Opening and Openness in Lithuanian Museology

Author: Dr. Elona Lubyte
Originally published in NuktaArt, 2nd issue, January 2006
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Installation by Amin Gulgee and Painting by A.P.Santhanaraj, Rural Scape (detail)

This is the narrative of a museum employee working during the period of ongoing change that is taking place in our country. After the restoration of independence, a new market economy strategy and the emergence of a private sector can be noted, both related to the new political view. They resulted from the attempt to return to the global context after half a century of Soviet occupation. The museum space is traditionally related to the protection and representation of cultural heritage. In Lithuania, as in the majority of Eastern European countries, museums and their collections are owned by the state. Our country has 93 museums of which 3 are national, 16 supported by the Republic, 56 municipal, 14 departmental and 4 private. A free market is characterized by self-regulatory laws. Exceptions slowly replace previously valid rules. Two private sculpture parks are examples of such exceptions in the slowly recovering Lithuanian cultural scene: the International European Center Sculpture Museum, 1993, and the Grutas Park, 1999, featuring disassembled monuments of the Soviet period. The stories of their creation represent two different models for establishing private museums, which in a general sense, may be characterized as the strategy of opening and openness respectively. The story of the latter type of establishment gives more insight into the essence of the changes that are taking place.


After the first decade of restored independence when the optimism of the “singing revolution” had calmed down, we experienced quite an inconsistency with regard to changes in museums. We can see that small, new and private structures are more successful at modernizing while old organizations change very slowly. The era of change in our museums started with the separation. In the Soviet period all objects stored in the museum belonged to the museum fund of the USSR and the activities of museums were coordinated by the Soviet Ministry of Culture. The current status of museums in Lithuania is based on the Museums Law of 1995, which states that the museum fund of the Republic of Lithuania is a part of the national property of Lithuania. Ministries, urban and regional municipalities, authorities, and private persons may establish museums.

In Soviet times, when the freedom of religion was abolished and churches were closed, branches of state museums were established in the churches to preserve historical collections. In this way in the 1950s-1960s, the Lithuanian Museum of Fine Arts placed the exhibition of Old Western European and Lithuanian Painting in the classical Cathedral Basilica of Vilnius, the exhibition of Lithuanian folk art in the Baroque church of All Saints, and the M. K. Ciurlionis Museum of Fine Arts presented an exhibition of old graphics and applied fine arts in a former Baroque monastery in the suburbs of Kaunas etc. After independence, the act governing the restitution of the rights of the Catholic Church stated that the said church was entitled to independence and the Republic of Lithuania should reimburse it for the losses incurred during the Soviet period and return its buildings, then in the ownership of the state authorities. The museums, which were restored in the wake of radical administrative and organizational changes, had to solve complex problems concerning the moving and rearranging of collections and exhibitions. Storage rooms for paintings and sculptures were installed in Vilnius Cathedral Basilica, next to the exhibition.

In Soviet times, as early as at the end of the 1940s, Vilnius University was training museum workers, and later, a course on museology was taught to students of history at the university and to students of the history and theory of arts at the State Institute of Fine Arts. However, an opportunity to become familiar with contemporary museology in more detail and a systematic approach came only after the restoration of independence. Neither the museums, nor the nation, expected or were prepared for the changes that came so rapidly. We have experienced the changes as a self-regulating process; not as a series of strategic moves but rather as the result of intuitive decisions. Neither the State nor the institutions blown about by the winds of change that accompanied the new ideology have yet been able to define a united strategy. Public promotion of the cultural decentralization has given rise to a dense structure of branches of national museums – the Lithuanian Museum of Fine Arts controls the Picture Gallery of Vilnius, Radvilos Palace, the Museum of Applied Fine Arts, the National Fine Arts Gallery, Klaipeda Picture Gallery, Klaipeda Museum of Clocks, Palanga Amber Museum, Suduvite Fine Arts Museum, and P. Gudynas Restoration Center. M. K. Ciurlionis Museum of Fine Arts has Kaunas Picture Gallery, Mykolas Žilinskas Fine Arts Gallery, the Museum of Ceramics, the Museum of Works and the Collections of A. Žmuidzinavicius, the A. and P. Galauniai Home in Kaunas, A. Rakauskaite and L. Truikis Memorial Apartment in Kaunas, the M. K. Ciurlionis Memorial Museum in Druskininkai, and V. K. Jonynas Small Gallery in Druskininkai. It is obvious that the branches of museums scattered throughout Lithuania and engaged in various kinds of activities would in certain cases operate more rationally as independent subdivisions. Not to mention the maintenance problems of such a number of buildings, as a result of the organization of events. State museums are forced to change the nature of their activities drastically, learn how to save, establish additional sources of funding, adapt to the new needs of customers.

The era of change in our museums started with the separation. In the Soviet period, all objects stored in the museum belonged to the museum fund of the USSR.

Another problem originates from the changes in the provision of the museum services. The collections of the Lithuanian museums are now open to the public in the republic (in the exhibition “Christianity in Lithuanian Art” staged by the Lithuanian Museum of Fine Arts, the public was introduced to the history of ecclesiastical art, 1999-2003) and abroad the works of M. K. Ciurlionis were presented in international exhibitions – culminating in a personal exhibition of the artist in the Quai d’Orsay Museum in Paris. New expositions and exhibitions are followed by targeted educational programs. Unfortunately, the State museums have so far failed to realize that this process requires not only a well-trained administrative staff and professional keepers of collections, but also organizers and curators of the exhibitions. The organization of artistic events is a complex and time-consuming process in which, apart from the directors and administrators, the staff implementing the idea plays a very important role. This role and their competence regarding the national cultural policy is now considered important, although it is still not clearly defined in the funding of projects.

In my 14 years of employment with the Lithuanian Museum of Fine Arts and having organized 10 exhibitions at my central institution and outside, I have learned that the approach of the state museums to the organization of events is changing particularly slowly.

These remarks are not an attempt to hide or solve all the problems facing the Lithuanian museums in a time of change. They do, however, serve as an introduction to the following stories about the intentions of two personalities representing different generations and different philosophies in their exploration of the new power of private initiative in the museum field.


The strategy of opening reflects an approach, which attempts to open up to the global development processes, to return and rejoin the international scene and become an equal part of it. The First International Sculpture Symposium was held in 1993 near the private house of Gintaras Karosas, a student of sculpture at the Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts. The house was situated in an old suburban wood-land abounding with springs some 19 km from the capital. Today this outdoor Museum of Sculptures of the Center of Europe (area – 55 hectares), has 66 sculptures and receives about 50,000 visitors annually.

What is the story behind this first private museum in Lithuania, established by a young student, which initially raised many doubts but has exceeded the most optimistic forecasts made by its advocates?

The idea of the museum has its roots in the first public political meetings and actions of the “singing revolution” (the Baltic Road of 1989, when during the 50th anniversary of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact the citizens of the annexed Baltic States held hands and demonstrated their determination to restore independence to the whole world by means of their living chain along the Vilnius-Tallinn Road). At that time we cherished romantic hopes that all our ideals would come true and we could not imagine the efforts needed to achieve our goals. In such an environment the young sculptor had the idea that he wanted “to give a meaning to a geographical center of the European continent by means of the language of art”. In 1989, the fellows of the French National Geographic Institute located the center close to the Lithuanian capital. G. Karosas started to implement his idea with the creation of the sculptural sign for the new center of Europe, which later became the logo of the museum. In 1991, this sculpture was erected at the location of the new center of Europe. The young artist started to look for a place in the vicinity that would be suitable for the location of the new sculpture park. The suburban environment, abounding in hills and forests, stretching close to the new center of Europe is reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. Since Lithuania is a country of forests, nature has become an indispensable part of the environment in the consciousness of most of us. The ideas of the young artist were not born in a vacuum. In the 1970s, symposia on granite sculptures were organized in the seaside town of Klaipeda. In the course of time, mainly because of the remote situation and the ambitions of the young artist, there was a search for a place in which to bring to realization new and modern concepts. In the 1980s the network of sculpture symposia grew (with a symposium on metal in Alytus and a symposium on concrete in Aukštieji Paneriai, Vilnius), and the first sculpture exhibitions in public spaces emerged, which were replaced by new conceptual art projects in the 1990s. At the beginning of the independence movement, the sculpture garden in Jeruzale and Vilnius also legalized its activities. This united the artists who had settled in the suburbs of Vilnius and, in the Soviet times,  had contributed to the dissemination of the modernization processes in our environment. Sculptor Vladas Vildžiunas, who was one of the founders of this movement, had been a lecturer when the young artist studied at the Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts.

The young artist found an attractive space near the new center of Europe and, with the help of his parents, built a house which has now become the home of international symposia and the office building of the first private museum in Lithuania. At the same time he cleared the surrounding forest and excavated ponds in areas around the springs. The reflections of the increasing number of sculptures on the sparkling surface of the water in these ponds have become an important element of the new museum. To implement his idea, the young artist registered a private company Sculpture Museum of the Center of Europe and started looking for sponsors for the first sculpture symposium. In contrast to the state museums, which were regularly funded from the national budget, he had to raise subsidies by himself. The first international symposium of the Museum of the Center of Europe was jointly sponsored by UNESCO, the G. Soros Open Society Fund Lithuania, along with private Lithuanian companies and individuals. Ten sculptors from Greece, Lithuania, the USA, Hungary, and Finland participated in the symposium. Some of them were college students and their organizations subsidized their journey and stay in Lithuania. After a successful first event, Karosas familiarized himself with the activities of private sculpture parks in the USA and Japan. These ideas were especially useful in the formulation and adoption of a strategy for a future museum. Thus alternative collective events organized during the first years of the museum focused on the implementation of strong and ambitious projects. This program is realized in two ways: by attracting “names” and by the organizing of meetings for young artists from Eastern and Central Europe.

In 1996, the first ambitious project was realized in the Museum of the Center of Europe when the work of Dennis Oppenheim “Arm-chair-pool” (470 x 523 x 570 cm) was produced. Exactly according to the model it was made in a factory under the supervision of an assistant. The artist was satisfied with the result of the cooperation and agreed that another of his works should be built and installed in the park. A paradoxical, grotesque work was created, ‘Drinking Structure with Kidney-Shaped Pool’ (1000 x 900 x 550 cm), inside which a spectator can experience a variety of sensations because of the uncomfortable space. These works were the first representations of live pop-art classics, not only in Lithuania but also in Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time, a minimalist concrete ‘Double-Negative Pyramid’ (560 x 1200 x 600 cm), by Sol LeWitt was created following the directions of the artist. Initially, leading artists sent their assistants to carry out their ideas. Eventually, it was superseded by an active and creative process of cooperation. This cooperation with the famous Polish sculptor Magdalena Abukanovic was especially important for the young artist. Abukanovic first visited the park in 1997 when she was looking for a place to exhibit her small sculptures, but she was captivated by the environment and decided to create what has become one of her major compositions – an assembly of twenty-two abstract concrete segments and natural stone pebbles occupying over two thousand square meters, entitled “Space of Unrecognized Growth”, 1997-1998. The acquaintanceship and cooperation with this artist taught G. Karosas a new lesson allowing him not only to experience his dream coming true but also to get feedback from that experience. This is how a whole network of meaningful cooperation developed.

The ideas of the young artist were not born in vacuum, in the 1970s symposia on granite sculptures were organized in the seaside town of Klaipeda.

Between 1999 and 2001, an ambitious steel project by a young Czech sculptor, Aleö Vesey, “The Idea of Sculpture is a Sculpture” (880 x 792 x 793 cm), was erected in the park. An innovative ecological composition by a young artist, Mara Adamitz Scurpe, from the USA: “Suspicious Science”, with active solar batteries represented new technology. Perceiving the territory of the museum park as his creative space, Karosas together with the invited artists, created his own sculptures (“Monument of the Center of Europe”, 1997, “LNK Infotree”, 1998, “For Our Convenience”, 1999), looked after the forest and designed the aggregate image of the Center of Europe.

The extent of the park is increasing along with the number of ponds, the specially trimmed trees are thriving, an asphalt road has replaced the simple gravel path, and a parking area has been built. The museum park has become a favorite visiting and recreational place for young people, gardeners working nearby, and guests of the city, with approximately 50,000 visitors annually. And the young artist is improving not only his artistic skills but also his administrative, organizational and marketing skills. Simply to interest an artist in the possibility of realizing his or her idea is not conceivable without the financial support for these projects. The cost of the largest objects is estimated at LTL 200,000-300,000 (USD 50,000-75,000). State support for Karosa’s projects amounts only to about five percent of the value of the works. The remaining funds are raised from tickets, local and international sponsors on six levels, from major donors, to families and private individuals.

Today the young founder of the first private museum feels he is a citizen of the world as he communicates with artists globally and makes independent decisions not only about what or how, but also about how the existing collection of the museum is to be enlarged. The diverse and ambitious international collection of sculptures exhibited for visitors to the museum is becoming an opening, a “bridge between different cultures”, or to be more exact, between 22 countries whose artists created their works in the new Center of Europe.


The strategy of openness is associated with what is new, fearless and permissive, i.e. a free and democratic attitude towards the historical past. Since ancient times new monuments were built and old ones destroyed when one political system replaced another. Ancient Rome had a law “Demantio memori” (Curse of the past) which said that all statues, reliefs or inscriptions created to glorify a condemned person must be destroyed so that the name and appearance of the condemned would be erased from the memory of future generations.

After the restoration of independence, the signs of the old system are being changed. During 1989-1993, in Lithuania, 42 monumental Soviet sculptures were dismounted. In 1998, an open competition on the “establishment of the exposition of Soviet monumental sculptures” was announced and was won by a private organization, to which the dismounted pieces were handed over. Since 2000, they have been exhibited in the Grutas Park of the Museum of Soviet sculptures visited by nearly 50,000 people in the first year.

It is worth noting that this decision was very controversial in Lithuania. There were passionate opponents and advocates and the arguments of both sides were willingly presented in the free media. The experiences and losses of the past aroused particularly strong feelings. During the black years of occupation from 1940-1956, Lithuania lost 1 million of its population – 240,000 were killed by Nazis, and 360,000 by the Soviets killed in the resistance movement, an additional 400,000 people were deported and forced to leave the country. Naturally, the public attitude towards these painful issues is not homogeneous: some wish to erase from their memory all the names and symbols of this period while others believe that the overthrown idols will help us never to forget our painful history. Everyone is right in their own way. Our neighbor, Latvia melted down the Soviet monuments and molded bells, which were given to the victims of the repression while the Hungarians created a public exhibition of the sculptures. Reprints from publications, letters, speeches, and resolutions compiled on a 200-metre-long stand, in the vicinity of the park, became not only the history of the realization of the idea but also a testimony to the variety of attitudes in our society.

In contrast to the hero of the previous story, this museum-builder is an experienced, mature, decisive businessman willing to take a risk. In the Soviet period, Jonas Malinauskas was a chairman of a prosperous collective farm. His career started on a pheasant farm, established in 1967, and favored by visits from the Soviet leaders. After the restoration of independence, this former leader initiated some new activities. In a recreational area in Dzukija, which abounds in forests, he established a private wood and mushrooms processing company. Its current turnover totals LTL 12 million (USD 3 million). Next to the Druskininkai resort, famous in the Soviet era but dying today, is a recreation site with tennis courts and a stud farm being built on a repurchased land. Making complex plans for the development of the recreational business. J. Malinauskas had the idea of creating a new space for a cultural attraction. This is how 200 hectares of forest marsh (covered with a soil layer of 0.5-2.5 meters) came to be drained near his private house and facilities erected near the shores of the lake. This former kingdom of marshes and mosquitoes symbolically shelters the idols of the old ideological system. The exhibition in Grutas Park was put together over two years. The estimated cost of the project – LTL 4 million (USD 1 million) – was met from the capital of a successful private businessman.

In discussing the thematic composition of the Park it is worth mentioning that the new owner pursued a rational policy in implementing his idea. Defying public dissent, he invited the creators of the former monuments to help him, who willingly participated in the relocation of their works. Meanwhile, he started to include an introductory space adding some sort of interpretative material. As you enter the exhibition in the Park, there is an information center which has a collection of Soviet attributes, works of fine art, uniforms, diplomas, the writings of the Marxism-Leninist apologists, and the film chronicle “Soviet Lithuania”. Today the exhibits, majority of them somewhat exotic, are complemented by recent data from historical studies, some statistical material about the exile, the partisan resistance movements and collectivization. Research fellows from the State “Museum of Genocide Center” helped to prepare historical comments for the museum. It was important for the founder that the visitor would have an accurate commentary on historic events. After leaving the historical center, you enter an island surrounded by a channel and move along a wooden path surrounding the island, reminiscent of the rails of the railway taking the deported people into exile. The dismounted monuments, with their comments, are located on both sides at equal intervals – Lenin, Stalin, Dzeržinski, Putna, etc. Passing by these stone and bronze statues is uncomfortable for those who still fear the past. This discomfort is strengthened by the sound of Soviet songs, imitations of the barracks in the exile camps and partisan trenches deep in the forest as a background to the monuments. I, who remembers the sunset of this system, was disturbed by the literal references. The part of the exhibition showing the portraits of those who opposed the idea of the current Park, carved by folk artists, feels especially out of context. It looks as if the strategy of the founder of the park is to condemn both old and modern opponents. But modern museology recognizes the advantages of the Disneyland-type exposition. In the market environment, demand governs supply. My students, for whom socialism is only a historical concept, liked this kind of exposition. They stated that it was an attractive and instructive way to learn history.

The founder of the Park understood the new consumer-orientated needs of the visitors pretty well. As an efficient and caring owner he reacts promptly to their requirement. A restaurant has been established near the Park offering some ‘forest food’ dishes – with mushrooms. A separate menu for lovers of exotic things offers some Soviet cuisine – a drink of Russian vodka from a glass with the edge dipped in salt with a piece of rye bread and pickles, herring with pickled onions and potatoes from an aluminum dish or red cranberry kisel. The young visitors of the Park have not been forgotten either. They can enjoy a large playground in a meadow near a pine forest, which is also often favored by their parents. A nearby enclosure with some animals, appeared after one child remarked that his strongest memory of the Park was of a white hen in a cage.

The owner of the Park has started talking about his latest idea, which is to build a gallery of Soviet art, exhibiting the official and representative works of that time, such as the ideological pieces made of stained glass, since the problem of dismounting and preserving them is still a worry. Our relationship with history is individual and it is obvious that the concept of Grutas Park has and will continue to have its advocates and opponents. Nevertheless, it is an idea realized on the initiative of an individual as a symbol of a free and democratic environment.

This article was previously printed in Nordisk Museologi.

Dr. Elona Lubyte was born in Lithuania and attended the Department of Art History at the State Art Institute. Here she completed her Postgraduate course from the Vilnius Gediminas Technical University. Her doctoral thesis was on the System of Modern Art and its Management in Lithuania. She is the curator of Lithuanian contemporary sculpture in the Lithuanian Art Museum since 1987, and has been curating since 1988. She also lectures at the Vilnius Art Academy and VGTU. She writes about contemporary art and art management, and participates in republican and international conferences.

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