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Roadkill, rocks and Russian tanks: Inside one of the world's oddest museums

Peter Jeary / NBC News

Juozas Stepankevicius stands beside an earth-mover at the Lithuanian Road Museum. His eccentric collection came together not by design, but due to his reluctance to throw things away.

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Very few people can talk about rocks and heavy machinery with the enthusiasm and care of a proud father. But for 79-year-old Juozas Stepankevičius, director and curator of perhaps the oddest museum in the world, road-making is an enduring passion.

Over a convivial glass of local moonshine, Stepankevičius described the transformation he had witnessed in highway construction in his homeland of Lithuania. "When I started out, we didn't work with asphalt and heavy machinery -- we used rocks and horses in those days," he grinned.

Appropriately enough, his labor of love, the Lithuanian Road Museum, sits just off the main highway linking the country's two largest cities, Vilnius and Kaunas. The museum opened in 1995 to mark the 25th anniversary of the road's completion. Today, it attracts upwards of 6,000 visitors each year, many of them school kids and construction-industry students.

Pete Jeary / NBC News

Intersection models on display at the Lithuanian Road Museum.

The museum's exhibits – an eclectic potpourri of models, rock samples, documents, heavy machinery and road signs – chart the history of an industry that survived and occasionally thrived despite war, invasion, occupation and liberation. Huge wheels and pressed steel jostle for space in two large warehouses, and smaller displays are arranged in tidy gallery rooms on an upper floor.

Stepankevičius went through each specimen in detail. "This one has a Russian tank engine," he said, pointing to monster dating from the 1950s. "In fact, it pretty much is a tank – just with a bulldozer blade on the front. The Russians were good at tanks."

Clambering onto another huge earth-mover, he said that "the walls of the workshops rattled so much it caused all the engineers to run outside" when they first started it up.

A scale model of a Lithuanian highway intersection on display in an upstairs room had been used for a conference during the Soviet era as a design for other road engineers to follow, he said. "Then in the mid-1990s it was discovered languishing in a Moscow storeroom. It was Russian President Boris Yeltsin who said it should be allowed to come home."

Stepankevičius began building roads after graduating high school – he saw a poster offering a stipend for students learning road construction and chose it over a course in plumbing, which didn't offer as much money.

Gradually his career took him away from the back-breaking work of construction into administration and management, and slowly he began accumulating road paraphernalia.

Peter Jeary / NBC News

Road-making material samples at the Lithuanian Road Museum.

"Of the five of us from my high school who took the construction course, four of us are still alive," he said, draining his glass. "Managers live longer than laborers in the road business."

The eccentric collection came together not by design, but due to his reluctance to throw things away: "The more things I saved, the more I wanted, so the more I saved," he said. Eventually he found himself scavenging and scrounging for pieces to add to his collection.

Perhaps the most bizarre gallery combines Stepankevičius' love of roads with another of his passions – hunting. Stuffed birds, beavers, foxes and other assorted mammals adorn display cabinets alongside hunting memorabilia. "Not all of them are roadkill," he said, with a sideways glance at the beaver.

Despite the museum amassing 6,000 exhibits, Stepankevičius still sees his obsession as a work in progress. "It's not like writing a book, where, when you have no more to say, you simply write 'The End'," he explained. "Here, there will always be things to collect. I am building for the future."

Peter Jeary / NBC News

Juozas Stepankevicius, director and curator of the Lithuanian Road Museum, began building roads after graduating high school.