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Vytautas the Great War Museum, Kaunas 

 
   - darkometer rating:  3 -
 
A landmark pile in the centre of Kaunas, Lithuania, and home to a rather stuffy, old-fashioned military museum, which, however, has a few items of special interest to the dark tourist too.
  

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

     
More background info: The name of the museum, in case you were wondering, goes back to Lithuania's national hero who was ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the country's glory days in the Middle Ages in the 14th and 15th century. His name is everywhere, so why not lend it to this museum as well …  
  
The museum was built in the inter-war years when Kaunas was the capital of an independent, albeit much shrunk Lithuania – as large parts of its territory had been eaten up by Poland and other neighbours, but at least the remainder of the state was again independent from Russia, if only briefly ... 
  
Given that Lithuania's war glories lie far in the past the size of the museum building seems a little exaggerated, but its contents aren't actually all about war. First and foremost, the museum houses the mangled wreck of the “Lituanica” plane that the country's famed aviation pioneers Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas successfully navigated non-stop all the way from New York, USA, and across the Atlantic and much of Europe … only to fatally crash, under still unclarified circumstances, shortly before reaching Kaunas. 
  
But as is so often the case, dead heroes are frequently more revered than surviving ones, and this is certainly the case for Darius and Girėnas. They even used to be on the 10 litas banknote (and the “Lituanica” plane on the back) – but now that Lithuania has adopted the euro as well, this expression of national hero-hood had to fall by the wayside. Still, there are all the street names and memorials in their honour – and this special section in the Kaunas military museum. 
  
Their plane was a small single-engine Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker, a sturdy US-built utility aircraft of already acclaimed long-distance endurance. The pilots had bought it second hand in the USA and adapted the aircraft  by giving it elongated wings and extra fuel tanks. They also had it painted dark orange (sometimes you see it depicted in red).
  
The flight was almost a record-breaker … in terms of distance and duration of the flight, hence Darius and Girėnas are often ranked alongside the more famous Charles Lindbergh. They did succeed in one absolute historic record, even if it was only small glory: their plane carried the first airmail in transatlantic aviation history. 
  
The plane, pilots and airmail did not reach their destination, but at least the mail was collected from the crash site and could thus belatedly be delivered. The dead pilots later received a state funeral and several monuments were erected in their honour, both within Lithuania and abroad (including at the crash site in what is today Poland). 
  
The plane, on the other hand, was placed in the Kaunas War Museum, alongside the pilots' clothes and other related memorabilia. It is clearly the star section of the museum and the main reason for paying it a visit.
  
  
What there is to see: much more than is in the strict sense of dark-tourism interest. A lot of the usual old stuff, uniforms, paintings, ancient weaponry and so on will be rather boring to most dark tourists. But there are notable exceptions, not least the famous “Lituanica” wreck … but let's start at the beginning:
  
The museum building is certainly impressive, at least if you believe that size matters. In fact it feels a bit oversized for what it is and where it is. At the time of my visit the front facade and main entrance were undergoing a facelift, so a side entrance had to be used. It was a bit confusing but eventually I found the way in – by the time you read this, you can probably use the original main entrance again, so not to worry.  
  
After parting with the moderate entrance fee (and hefty photography permit) it is at first the size of the main hall again that is evidently designed to impress. Yet the museum exhibition as such is initially a bit disappointing: just big oil paintings, statues, armour, a few vehicles and guns, and very little information. It oozed the typical atmosphere of an old-school war museum that hadn't seen any modernization in decades. 
  
But first impressions can be wrong and things did indeed improve a bit on closer inspection. In one corner there were exhibits relating to Lithuania's struggle for independence, including an old Lithuania-German Reich border post damaged by bullets in early WWII. In another section some artefacts from the former KGB prison in Kaunas as well as from Siberian gulags (where many Lithuanians had been deported to during the Soviet era) were on display. 
  
Furthermore there was even a small section about Lithuania's modern-day contribution to UN peacekeeping missions. Amongst other things, the displays here included items that had belonged to a Lithuanian UN soldier who was killed in Bosnia in the 1990s. 
  
Upstairs the exhibition first jumps back in history in giant steps, all the way to the Middle Ages and even touching on prehistoric times. This is followed by a room full of rifles and helmets, plus several life-size dummies in period costumes/uniforms, some of which looked rather dodgy to me (but then again I struggle to muster much genuine respect when it comes to clichéd representations of old military glory). 
  
Finally the visitor gets to the star attraction of the whole museum: the mangled plane wreck of the “Lituanica” that Lithuania's aviation pioneers Darius and Girėnas perished in when they crashed just before completing their historic non-stop flight from New York to Kaunas (see above for background). 
  
The plane wreck is displayed inside a huge curved glass case that makes it a bit difficult to see through, due to distracting light reflections on the outer surface – so you have to press your nose right up against the glass to get a real view of the wreck. 
  
As if to make sure you get what this is about, a small scale model of the plane dangles from the ceiling. On a wall next to the oversized wreck display case, hang the portraits of the two tragic aviation heroes.  
  
Beyond the “Lituanica” section, there are yet more displays relating to Lithuanian resistance against the Soviets, and yet more oil paintings of various figures who must have played some role or other in Lithuania's military history. 
  
Some of these paintings were of such stunningly bad quality, artistically speaking, that I almost had to laugh out loud. But I suppressed my giggles, because the whole place tries to keep up such a solemn air of gravitas, including the stony-faced museum wardens .. and I didn't want to offend anybody.   
  
Overall, this museum is probably quite a way off the must-see list for the dark tourist in Lithuania, except for those with a special interest in the early aviation history and its tragic accidents. The rest is largely too old-fashioned, stuffy military-history-buff material that is, frankly, quite missable. So not for everybody, but if you have time spare when in Kaunas, then why not pop in for a bit – at least it's cheap (unless you want to take pictures).      
  
  
Location: right in the centre of the eastern, newer part of Kaunas on Vienybės Aikštė square. The official address is 64 K. Donelaičio gatve, the street that runs along the southern side of the square.  
  
Google maps locator: [54.9001, 23.9121]
  
  
Access and costs: easy to get to; cheap admission (but they overcharge for photo permits) 
  
Details: The museum is hard to miss, given its size and central location in the heart of the city, just one block north of the middle section of Laisvės Alėja, the pedestrianized main street that runs through central Kaunas from east to west. So as long as you are staying in a halfway central location in the city, the museum should be within walkable reach.
  
Opening Times: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily, except in the winter season between October and March when the museum is closed on Sundays. 
    
Admission: 2 EUR (concession 1 EUR).
  
Guided tours and audio guides are available too – though I hadn't been made aware of the latter (but didn't mind not having one), so I can't say what the fee for this may have been. 
  
What I was made to realize was that there's a hefty surcharge for a photo permit: a disproportionately steep 35 litas (over 10 EUR!), at least when I was there in April 2014 (I didn't find it mentioned on the museum's website when I last checked in 2018). I found that fee quite excessive, but thought, now I'm here I should take pictures too, so I splashed out on this. Normally, though, regular visitors should rather spare themselves this excessive and ultimately unnecessary extra expense. 
  
  
Time required: I spent little more than half an hour in this museum, and I reckon only really dyed-in-the-wool military-history buffs will need much longer than this ... 
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Kaunas.
  
By location the most convenient combination has to be with the Devil Museum, which is just behind the War Museum, literally just round the corner. Many other sites of interest are more or less within easy walking distance too, while others, especially the 9th Fort, are a bit further out.
  
The same is true if you want pay your respects at the actual graves of the two “Lituanica” pilots. You can find them in Aukštieji Šančiai Cemetery in the south-east of Kaunas amongst various other military graves. The address is Ašmenos 1, and you'd need to take a bus to get there from Kaunas city centre (or walk for about an hour through not especially enticing parts of prefab suburbia). Google maps locator: [54.8796, 23.9505]
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see Kaunas
  
  
  • Kaunas war museum 01 - grand facadeKaunas war museum 01 - grand facade
  • Kaunas war museum 02 - undergoing refurbishmentKaunas war museum 02 - undergoing refurbishment
  • Kaunas war museum 03 - insideKaunas war museum 03 - inside
  • Kaunas war museum 04 - main hallKaunas war museum 04 - main hall
  • Kaunas war museum 05 - old guns and vehiclesKaunas war museum 05 - old guns and vehicles
  • Kaunas war museum 06 - big mortarKaunas war museum 06 - big mortar
  • Kaunas war museum 07 - gulag daysKaunas war museum 07 - gulag days
  • Kaunas war museum 08 - gulag artefactsKaunas war museum 08 - gulag artefacts
  • Kaunas war museum 09 - red star winter hatKaunas war museum 09 - red star winter hat
  • Kaunas war museum 10 - border postKaunas war museum 10 - border post
  • Kaunas war museum 11 - fighting for independenceKaunas war museum 11 - fighting for independence
  • Kaunas war museum 12 - modern daysKaunas war museum 12 - modern days
  • Kaunas war museum 13 - really, really old war historyKaunas war museum 13 - really, really old war history
  • Kaunas war museum 14 - stupid-faced armourKaunas war museum 14 - stupid-faced armour
  • Kaunas war museum 15 - funny helmetsKaunas war museum 15 - funny helmets
  • Kaunas war museum 16 - deadly soldierKaunas war museum 16 - deadly soldier
  • Kaunas war museum 17 - unclear if this is to depict gratitude or a before-the-rape sceneKaunas war museum 17 - unclear if this is to depict gratitude or a before-the-rape scene
  • Kaunas war museum 18 - model of the Lituanica planeKaunas war museum 18 - model of the Lituanica plane
  • Kaunas war museum 19 - wreck of the real thingKaunas war museum 19 - wreck of the real thing
  • Kaunas war museum 20 - mangledKaunas war museum 20 - mangled
  • Kaunas war museum 21 - the pilots of the LituanicaKaunas war museum 21 - the pilots of the Lituanica
  • Kaunas war museum 22 - another planeKaunas war museum 22 - another plane
  • Kaunas war museum 23 - exceptionally bad paintingKaunas war museum 23 - exceptionally bad painting
  • Kaunas war museum 24 - clandestine printing pressKaunas war museum 24 - clandestine printing press
  • Kaunas war museum 25 - a HarleyKaunas war museum 25 - a Harley
 
  
  
  
 
  
  
  
 
  

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