We resume our series highlighting quirky museums around the world; we are putting the spotlight on Kaunas, Lithuania.
The Pearl of the Baltics: 14th Century castles, 15th Century Gothic churches, residencies of Russian Czars from the 1800s, all wrapped around by the modern Brutalist and Neo-brutalist architecture of the second largest city in Lithuania. Kaunas may not be recognizable by name to many people, but to history buffs, it might be. Over 12.000 people venture to Kaunas each year to see all the history and various museums it houses, but 3-4.000 people go to see one museum in particular. Inducted in 1966 it is the largest collection of art depicting the devil in the world.
A collection of African tribal masks donated to The Devil´s Museum by its patrons
There’s truly nothing else like The Devil’s Museum; it is truly one of a kind. Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, artist and collector, did not intentionally seek out pieces of this nature at first—nor could have conceptualized what it would later turn into—but after realizing how important it was to preserve folk art and history, he began his collection. All of the pieces exhibited were gifts to the artist by his friends or visitors of the museum hoping to pay homage to his memory. What started out as a collection of only a little over 200 different works, became over 4.000 within a span of 50 years.
A collection of Lithuanian Folk Art from the years 1600 to 1900 donated to The Devil’s museum by friends of Antanas Žmuidzinavičius.
Antanas received his first piece of folk art as a gift in 1906, and in that moment realized the value of folk heritage in art. From then on he began collecting pieces that he and others perceived as cultural identifiers for Lithuania. While that is the main reason he began the collection, there is another more rebellious reason as well. From 1928-1941 you needed a permit to hold religious ceremonies, talk about religion, and hold religious artwork and pieces in the Soviet Union. Though there was another conflicting law that favored the preservation of culture and heritage. This is where Atanas saw an opportunity, and began to grow his collection extensively. Religion may have been a tricky subject during that time, but the preservation of culture and folk histories was something that was more broadly accepted by the state.
Although Atanas started the collection out of rebellion and need to preserve cultural identity, he ultimately didn’t care much for religion. He and a good majority of Lithuanians at the time were atheists or people who didn’t put much importance into the dogma of religion. The Devil was seen as amusing, witty, and sometimes even pitiful in folklore; in all he was more of a joke than a frightening figure of damnation. This in part is also why Atanas continued the collection; it was a commentary on the state's policies as well as a reflection of the attitudes of the people.
When Atanas died in 1966 his house was inducted into a museum, and in the early 2000s the museum was moved to a larger building to better house all the works. If you would like to know more about The Devil’s Museum as well as exhibitions there, please visit their website: https://ciurlionis.lt/veikla/ekspozicijos/velniu-kolekcija/ .