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The exhibition An Untroubled Age. Childhood in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania opens

An exclusive exhibition has opened at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania that reveals how the life of children changed from the second half of the 14th century through to the middle of the 19th century. This is the first exhibition of its kind dealing with this theme in Lithuania, standing out from similar exhibitions organised in other countries for its multifaceted approach. The organisation of an exhibition covering this kind of cross-section of themes is a very complicated process, demanding not just a thorough understanding of history and culture but also knowledge of the collections kept in memory institutions and experience in selecting exhibits for display. Almost 300 exhibits are featured in this exhibition, gathered from museum, archive, library and private collections in Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania – in total from as many as 28 owners. While organising this exhibition, the aims was to show how attitudes towards childhood changed over the ages: from “invisible” little ones in society to infants in family portraits, from society criticising mothers who were too attached to their offspring to acknowledgement of the child as an individual. The exhibition has something interesting for adults and children alike.
The themes of pregnancy, birth, health and unfortunately for those days, frequent premature death, upbringing, clothing, education, entertainment, participation in everyday life – everything that comes under the banner of childhood, was not forgotten and is presented at the exhibition at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. We can see how children lived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from portraits, graphic art works and drawings. We learn about how and what subjects children learned from instructions in writing left by their parents, handwriting tasks, textbooks and special-occasion publications. Things like archaeological artefacts, surviving children’s clothing and accessories, furniture, toys and weapons inform us about their games and how they dressed.
“Children of the ‘commonfolk’ who attended parish schools were taught how to read, write and count, while the offspring of magnates also had to learn to ride horses and know how to use weapons – we are exhibiting crossbows and swords made especially for children. Visitors will also be able to see the helmet from the suit of child armour made for the future ruler of Lithuania and Poland Władysław Vasa that was brought over especially for this occasion from Sweden. The armour was commissioned in Italy in 1605 for the tenth birthday of the successor to the throne”, says exhibition curator Dr Rasa Leonavičiūtė-Gecevičienė presenting the exhibits. Just recently, the child armour of the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Sigismund Augustus was on display at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. According to the exhibition curator, such suits of child armour were usually commissioned as a sign of luxury and social status – no one actually sent children out into the battlefield, yet the exhibited helmet does bear signs of some sort of fighting.
The images of rulers’ children emanating an air of splendour are supplemented with stories about the enormous requirements and expectations placed upon them by their parents and society from their very first days of life. According to Leonavičiūtė-Gecevičienė “it is quite unbelievable, but several centuries ago the children of wealthy families learned similar subjects to what we teach our own offspring today – they included foreign languages, history, law, arithmetic, geography, anatomy and astronomy. The educational programme was constantly being broadened: Sigismund the Old had not received an education as coherent as that of his son, for example, or even more so, as that of the offspring of rulers who lived in later periods. If we take another ruler, John Sobieski, his children had rigorous schedules – the parents had even written down the times when they were meant to get up in the morning, what to learn, and which time they were meant to go to bed. Boys were deemed to be the most important, yet girls were also expected to learn”.
Many of the objects that have survived into our times reflect the experiences of magnates’ and rulers’ children, however the exhibition also features artefacts about the impoverished and harsh childhood of foundlings and abandoned children. Visitors will easily recognise universal objects important in the life of a child regardless of the epoch in which they lived, including infant-care items, furniture, toys and books – things that no generation could do without.
The exhibition’s other curator, also a cultural historian, Rita Lelekauskaitė-Karlienė, says that the organisation of this exhibition revealed numerous discoveries to both of them: “For example, the development of the child’s costume. When looking at portraits, I never gave much thought to the fact that in the 14th–17th centuries, children were dressed in the same clothing as adults, only in smaller sizes. That explains why their portraits appeared somewhat odd, as if they were shrunken down adults. Boys, like girls, wore gowns to the age of four, so as to hide their nappies. Clothing that did not restrict the movement of children only started being sewn in the 18th century!”
Another thing Lelekauskaitė-Karlienė suggests paying attention to is how children were portrayed. Up to the 18th century, artists would “age” children, as if trying to guess the facial characteristics of the future adult. “Visitors will see a portrait of Sigismund Augustus that was painted when he was barely one year old. However, it looks as if the subject is a child aged at least four”, laughs the exhibition curator.  
The title of the exhibition – An Untroubled Age – echoes the prevailing duality present in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as childhood was not so untroubled or purely a bright age interval for all – many children had to bear an enormous burden of responsibility from their earliest years, something neither those born to peasant or serf families, who had to work as soon as they were old enough, nor the offspring of the rulers of Poland and Lithuania could avoid. Idyllic portraits of families with children are counterbalanced with artefacts illustrating the story of Vilnius’ foundlings.
According to Leonavičiūtė-Gecevičienė, “This exhibition at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania will stand out for its colours and different approach to history. Usually in exhibitions, we dedicate a great deal of attention to the themes of statehood, art history and important figures, but this time it is the daily life of children that is most important. That’s why we say that childhood will reign supreme at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania for three whole months”.
The exhibition consists of four main thematic parts outlined chronologically and thematically: the first – “So long as its healthy...”: pregnancy, birth and the fragility of infancy; second – Children’s clothing and footwear; third – The Small Big World: daily joys and troubles; and fourth – Growing up in the ruler’s court.
The exhibition will be open at the National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania until January 15, 2023. 

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Published:: 2022-10-14 10:40 Modified: 2023-08-28 10:44
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