In the 1960s, the search for a location to build a new Lithuanian astronomical observatory began. The old one, situated in Vilnius’ Čiurlionis St., could no longer function properly due to the city’s dust, smoke, and lighting. Various places were examined and finally in 1969 the hills of Kulionys village, located in the Molėtai district and surrounded by Lake Želva, were chosen. The place was found suitable and construction works began the same year.
The idea of ethnocosmology was born on the Kaldiniai Hills. Its founding fathers were Dr Gunaras Kakaras, Head of Staff at the astronomical observatory, and Dr Libertas Klimka, Senior Research Associate at the Semiconductor Physics Institute and an avid enthusiast of ethnoculture. Kakaras’s fascination with the celestial sphere, and Klimka’s with ethnology found something in common – the Lithuanian nation’s connection with the sky, Sun, Moon, and stars. Such were the origins of ethnocosmology – both of the term and the future museum. But it took some time before the term ‘ethnocosmology’ was actually used.
Meanwhile, construction works for the Molėtai Astronomical Observatory continued. The first two telescopes were tested. There was no advertising, just short messages in the press. Apparently, this was enough – the Observatory started receiving visitors, both groups and individuals. The majority were interested in the Astronomical Observatory itself and the work of its staff. But some visitors were different; some had questions like: “Why do I, a tiny being of this planet who only needs so little to live, exist in this boundless universe?”; “What’s the purpose of it and what’s the purpose of my existence?”
Such questions suggested that visitors could benefit from the opportunity to see the sky through a telescope themselves, get answers to certain important questions and raise new ones. These ideas were supported by Juozas Algimantas Krikštopaitis, originally a physicist who later discovered philosophy and gained Habilitation in that field (the highest, postdoctoral academic qualification).
In 1978, we celebrated the 125th anniversary of the old astronomical observatory at Vilnius University. Thanks to Klimka, on this special occasion we opened a museum on one of the floors of the Molėtai Astronomical Observatory. Besides the telescopes from the old Vilnius observatory, one could find there several ethnographic exhibits that already marked our nation’s connection with the celestial world.
But the full realisation of the idea required dedicated premises and buildings. As soon as the construction works for the Observatory were finished, a “special purpose astronomical pavilion” was built based on Vytautas Lisauskas’s design. But in truth it was a museum. It was built on a specifically selected spot, a little bit further from the Observatory, near the Hill of Kulionys. The building’s architecture is based on the image of the Cosmic World Tree. The roots – an underground gallery ascending the hill – contain the exhibition, and at the top of the hill, as if climbing the trunk, we find the telescope. Together with the buildings and conception was born the name ethnocosmology – the Lithuanian understanding of the sky, relations and respect for the celestial world as the source of life.
Lithuania was about to reinstate its independence. The construction works for the Museum of Ethnocosmology were coming to an end. The weekly journal Literatūra ir menas (Literature & Art) published an article on ethnocosmology, introducing it as a new cultural and scientific phenomenon. On 15 March 1990, in accordance with the decision of the Presidium of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, the Museum of Ethnocosmology was established as a separate division of the Eksma experimental laboratory. Later, on the recommendation of the Academy of Sciences, the founder of the Museum of Ethnocosmology was changed; the new Ministry of Culture and Education took over and the museum was renamed the Centre of Ethnocosmology. Soon the Ministry of Culture and Education was divided into two and the Centre of Ethnocosmology became the property of the Ministry of Culture. In 1995, the original title was restored and the Lithuanian Museum of Ethnocosmology became a national-level institution.
These were difficult times for the museum: an unfinished building, cold and damp administrative premises, and huge opposition from various institutions. On the other hand, the number of exhibits and visitors was increasing. On September 17 1997, there was cause for a huge celebration at the Museum of Ethnocosmology – the museum’s telescope was finally made operational. This was made possible thanks to an international Lithuanian-Italian Fund. The dome for the telescope had already been prepared – it was bought from Zeiss, but the assembly and installation works were performed by museum staff ourselves.
In 2003, the Museum of Ethnocosmology finally regained ownership of the buildings and the land they stand on. Successful Phare 2000 and Phare PPF (pre-accession EU) bids resulted in an architectural design and construction works to carry it out. During 2007–2008 the museum was restored. The works were financed in accordance with the EU Cohesion Fund aid programme “The Expansion of Services” by the Tourist Complex at the Lithuanian Ethnocosmology Museum. The budget was LTL22.317 million, 2.67 million of which was allocated by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture. LTL19.942 million was allocated for the construction and restoration works. Authors of the project – R. Krištapavičius and A. Gudaitis. Works performed by Mitnija, UAB. Also a modern 80 cm diameter telescope for visitors and video/audio equipment was bought using these funds.
In November 2008, the very first excursions were organized. As the number of visitors increased, new guides were prepared as well as the exhibition outside and inside the observatory. In 2009, 46,583 people (19,688 pupils) visited the restored Lithuanian Museum of Ethnocosmology. The museum begins 2010 with two new telescopes for night-time observations, telescopes for the observation of the Sun, and a continuously updated inner and outer exhibition.