Rumšiškės Ethnographic Museum | True Lithuania
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Rumšiškės Ethnographic Museum

Rumšiškės open-air museum is a massive recreation of pre-industrial Lithuania. With ~150 buildings spread over landscaped 195 ha it is also among the world‘s largest museums. By area, it equals the entire nation of Monaco and is four times the size of Vatican.

Nearly everything in Rumšiškės had been moved from somewhere else. 19th-century huts, sheds, and farmer homes that stood all over Lithuania have been saved from destruction by reassembling them here. They are joined by mills, churches, workshops and inns that were the backbone of the economy, entertainment and lifestyle.

The area is so huge that ~10 km of walking is required to see everything. Much of the museum consists of open spaces, ponds, and forests that put the "secluded villages" into context. The villages may be somewhat sanitized compared to historical reality, but that makes them more picturesque and no less interesting to explore.

In summer many of museum‘s mostly-wooden buildings may be entered, witnessing period tools and crafts inside. Rumšiškės is the most lively during some traditional festivals which are celebrated here in the traditional way.

A farmstead in Rumšiškės with masked performers during Užgavėnės festival. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Interpretation and wayfinding cues are weak spots (especially for non-Lithuanians) and much of the museum is rather static outside festivals, but the atmosphere of "Old Lithuania" is nevertheless unique.

Main areas: the town and countryside regions

Small "Rumškiai town" is the museum‘s hub. Its large square is surrounded by small townhouses and a church. Many Rumškiai townhouses have recreated interiors of 19th – early 20th centuries: a single-room school, craftsmen workshops (with interpreters), an inn. Others host permanent exhibitions of period goods, such as sleights. During festivals, the square is turned into a marketplace.

"Back then" church services and regular markets would have attracted the people of surrounding populous countryside to the towns. The Rumšiškės "countryside" has 5 areas, one for each ethnographic region of Lithuania. Buildings of various ages stand next to each other: from an early 19th century chimneyless huts that used to be full of smoke, to early 20th century pretty wooden homes with large windows. Each farmstead, consisting of a family home and multiple additional buildings (barn, bathhouse), has been brought intact, however.

Rumškiai town with a market square on the left and a church on the background. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Aukštaitija is both the largest region and Rumšiškės area. It includes an entire orderly single-street village of 8 farmsteads, as well as 3 separate farmsteads. Exhibits inside them include wedding traditions, language-ban period, traditional medicine, folk holidays and tailoring. Octagon wooden church and pretty wayside crosses are the area‘s main draw. Other specialized buildings are small and mid-sized windmills, textile mill and blacksmithy.

Samogitia area is second in size. Its 6 farmsteads, each with more buildings than is common in other regions, are grouped into a chaotic village peculiar to the area. Žemaitukas breed horses/ponies (the backbone of medieval Lithuanian cavalry) are kept there. The farmsteads are outflanked by a large windmill and joined by an inn, icehouse and pigeon house.

Dzūkija area has a 4-farmstead "shared village" (where each "farmstead" actually has numerous buildings scattered across the entire settlement) and one separate farmstead. The large forests and infertile lands made Dzūkians to exploit the forest (e.g. foraging), which is reminded by a mushroom-drying house in one farmstead.

A fragment of the Dzūkija village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Sudovia area has an oil mill and 3 farmsteads, one of which includes a small windmill and the other has a cattle-drawn mill. As Sudovian farmers were among the richest, the exhibits concentrate on technical heritage (agricultural tools, locomobiles).

Recent additions to cover the entire Old Lithuania

Originally built under Soviet occupation (1974) Rumšiškės had many "political omissions". Firstly, they went in-line with the general Soviet policy of presenting only the pre-modern peasant life. The life of later eras or of higher classes was considered to be ideologically dangerous. While the relative prosperity of the 1920s and the late 1930s would have been preferred by many over the Soviet persecutions and stagnation, the spartan existence of turn-of-the-century Lithuanian village would hardly lure anyone. Therefore the non-Russian nationalism in the Soviet Union was relegated to the level of rural clothes and songs.

Moreover, entire Lithuania Minor ethnographic region was missing in Rumšiškės: as most of Lithuania Minor had been transferred to Soviet Russia rather than Soviet Lithuania, the propaganda attempted to wipe out the existence of this region altogether. The museum is working to redress this all, albeit extremely slowly.

Aukštaitija region wooden cross, chapel-posts,and the octagonal church. While the Soviet regime was anti-religious these were allowed as original exhibits, owing to the wish to equate religion to the outdated rural lifestyle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuania Minor area has been established recently although currently it has just a single farmstead and fails to thoroughly represent the area‘s unique Lutheran German-influenced heritage and lifestyle.

As Lithuania Minor is a seaside land, its Rumšiškės area appropriately rests next to Kaunas reservoir with an observation tower offering vistas partly covered by trees. An unrelated nearby inn (relocated from Aukštaitija) offers food.

Exile and Resistance zone is another post-independence addition, showing the Soviet occupation when Lithuania lost 47% of its people and the land was nationalized, destroying that old bond between a Lithuanian and his family farmstead which Rumšiškės meticulously recreate.

Appropriately modest exhibits include an anti-Soviet partisan bunker, a cattle carriage used for The Exile, a Siberian yurt-like those Lithuanians had to build for themselves during The Exile and humble crosses from Siberian villages that used to be erected for Lithuanians who succumbed to cold and forced labor. Here it’s easy to see how the Soviet occupation worsened even the 19th-century village conditions to many Lithuanians.

A yurt of the Exiled Lithuanians. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In order to also represent the upper society of pre-modern Lithuania Aristavėlė Manor has been moved in. However, so far it just has a wooden palace with closed interior and is a far cry from real multi-building Lithuanian manors.

Planned future additions include religious minority houses of worship.

When and how to visit

Rumšiškės is easy to reach as it is next to the Vilnius-Kaunas highway. Vilnius-Kaunas buses (non-express at least) stop here if asked (~2 km from the museum entrance).

While the museum is opened year-round, the building interiors are only available for view May-to-September.

A visit during pagan-rooted feasts (such as Užgavėnės / Carnival or Joninės / June 23rd) is atmospheric, although one should read in advance about the traditions of that holiday as they won’t be explained locally [video of Užgavėnės at Rumšiškės].

It is also always possible to book special events, workshops, and seminars on many topics, some available in English.

The “real” Rumšiškės town that adjoins the museum is a Soviet creation of a little interest. The original Rumšiškės was submerged after the Kaunas dam was built in 1959. Only the wooden church was saved from that fate by moving it to a higher ground.

English tourist map of Rumšiškės ethnographic museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. No mention of that fact that, pre WWII, between 40% and 60% of the population of most Lithuanian village were Jews. This includes the original Rumsiskes (Romshoshok in Yiddish), from where my grandfather emigrated as a young man. Maybe this is what the write-up means by “religious minority houses of worship.” Synagogues? For an accurate portrayal of Lithuanian folk life, this open-air museum must acknowledge the existence of its large Jewish population for hundreds of years, and should portray Jews and Christians living together, in cooperation and in struggle, which is how it really happened.

    • This is not fully correct. According to the population census of 1923, Jews did form 7% of Lithuania’s population. However, they mostly lived in towns and cities rather than villages. Some towns and cities indeed had significant percentages of Jews, however, no villages had significant Jewish populations. Rumšiškės was considered a town rather than a village (that old Rumšiškės has been inundated by the Kaunas reservoir).

      As it is written in the article, the Rumšiškės museum was created under Soviet rule, so the museum has deliberately shown only the life of 19th-century villages, and not the life of towns or manors. Also, the entire Lutheran-majority Lithuania Minor region was omitted (because it was annexed to Russia, so Lithuanians were expected to forget about it).

      After independence, the museum sought to cover these omissions. A town was constructed and operational. A manor has been constructed but not yet operational. Indeed, in the future, the town should also receive a synagogue, while the Lithuania Minor area (small so far) hopefully should receive a Lutheran church.

  2. I have visited Rumšiškės twice; it was quite fascinating. I believe a small Lithuanian hill fort should be built as part of the museum, providing additional historical context and character.

    • It may be. However, Rumšiškės recreates a very particular period of Lithuanian history, namely the 19th century. Everything what you see there existed in the 19th century (even though some of the houses are older): the town, the villages, the agriculture, the folk festivals…

      One exception may be the Soviet exiles section, however, it was basically the final remnants of that “calm” 19th century Lithuania that were destroyed by the Soviet occupation, and the exiled Lithuanians were forced to go nearly a century backwards with their lifestyle, so it may be appropriate as well.

      Hillforts, on the other hand, lost any meaning long before the 19th century as the modern artillery prevailed over the old means of siege. By the 19th century, they were all barren and castle-less and forgotten. It may be so that Medieval times would warrant another open-air museum. There are some mystified attempts to create one in Southern Sudovia: . It includes a hillfort. Additionally, there is attempt to rebuild a hillfort in Anykščiai ( ).

      • Yes, the town existed, but the original Rumsiskes town was ~40% Jews. As said before, the population of most market towns in 19th century and, indeed, in most of the Pale of Settlement, was 20%-60% Jews. The Museum is making efforts to show this, but right now it incorrectly implies that Jews were a tiny minority in the town.

        • Rumšiškės museum is not a recreation of 19th-century Rumšiškės town. It is a recreation of the entire 19th-century Lithuania.

          Most of Rumšiškės is actually a recreation of Lithuania’s villages, where nearly no Jews lived (as all the Lithuania’s Jews lived in towns). Back in those days, some 85% of Lithuania’s population lived in villages.

          There is now also an area of Rumšiškės museum that represents a pre-war town – however, it has been added relatively recently (after independence) and is still undergoing expansion. The fully-developed town will have a synagogue.

          Unfortunately, it takes very long to redress the Soviet-era omissions and the construction of new areas is painfully slow. That, however, includes not just the town, but all the other areas and population groups that did not fit in with the Soviet idea that, before the Soviet occupation, Lithuania was in some agricultural dark ages.

          There also needs to be an expansion of Lithuania Minor (Lutheran Lithuanians) section, as there were even more Lutherans in Lithuania than Jews but they are nearly unrepresented. There needs to be an expansion of the manor section which is nearly non-existent (not all Lithuanians were peasants, after all), a creation of the business/industry section and so on. Perhaps a traditional wooden Tatar mosque and an Old Believer church would also be interesting additions.

          That said, even though those sections warrant a creation/expansion, some 75% of 19th-century Lithuania’s population indeed were village-dwelling Lithuanian Catholic peasants, so it cannot be said that the current presentation does not cover the majority of 19th century Lithuania, although it surely needs to be expanded.

  3. Your whole website is fantastic. Your breadth of subjects is appreciated. Your explanations are clear and elucidating. Can we put you in charge of world information denomination? Thank you for all the work you have done to provide this information on ALL things Lithuanian. Is there a subject you haven’t covered? Kudos to you. Thank you for making this information available to everyone.

  4. Your website is fascinating! I just came across my grandfather’s passport. It states he (Joseph Merecky) a storekeeper was born May 15, 1882, in Rumsiskia Lithuania. I’m assuming this town is the same as Rumšiškės. If so, how can the Ethnographic Museum be located on land that was flooded to create a reservoir? Or it is actually located somewhere else and just referencing that name? (Note: I’ve heard it mentioned years ago that his last name was more like Meriskus.)

    • The original Rumšiškės town was flooded. Its population was relocated to a nearby non-flooded location, and that “new town” is also named Rumšiškės. Likewise, museum was established there as well, on the shore of what became Kaunas reservoir. The museum is not directly related to the historic Rumšiškės town – the buildings and materials exhibited there have been moved from all over Lithuania. Likewise, the modern Rumšiškės town generally has new Soviet-era buildings. A notable exception is Rumšiškės wooden church, which has been moved from the old Rumšiškės (before it was submerged) to the new Rumšiškės (outside of museum), where it is still in use. This would be the church Joseph Merecky went to (unless he would have belonged to the religious minorities and not been Catholic).

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