Cold War Relics: The Wende Museum Saves Communist Design

From toys to chunks of the Berlin Wall, this California-based collection is showing that Cold War design is more than just propaganda

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The Wende Museum in Culver City, California, collects and preserves the "cultural artifacts and personal histories of Cold War-era Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to inform and inspire a broad understanding of the period and its enduring legacy." The name, Wende, in German means "turning point," and refers to the fall of the communist East German state in 1989, and more broadly covers the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Founded and directed by Justinian (Justin) Jampol, the museum focuses considerable attention to the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Nearly 75 percent of the objects in the collection originate from the GDR, documenting its interactions with the non-communist West and the divided city of Berlin.

Wende is an archive of material culture and an educational institution, fusing interdisciplinary scholarship with its programs. The museum provides open access to its unique collection and encourages interpretations "from multiple perspectives," its mission statement says. Its public programs benefit students and lifelong learners, as well as the general public.

Next year Taschen will publish a mammoth volume of the Wende's holdings. As the book is taking shape, I asked Jampol to speak about the origins of the museum and its current initiatives.

What prompted you to found this archive and museum?

I was a graduate student at Oxford University looking at Eastern European visual culture, focusing on the former East Germany and Soviet Union. It was clear that some of the most striking and informative sources—including a breadth of artwork, objects, and documents—were not to be found in national archives or even in museums whose warehouses were in any case off limits to researchers. At first, I was interested in pursuing these materials for my own research, then providing them to others for interdisciplinary work, and then, eventually, for other purposes. It all started from there.

It is fitting that the museum's collections have been exhibited in institutions as diverse as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Imperial War Museum in London. I am still discovering new purposes for the museum. We have produced several urban art projects, including one that paired street artists with ten 2.6-ton segments of the original Berlin Wall that we transported to Los Angeles. It's installed on Wilshire Blvd, one of the main thoroughfares in Los Angeles, and is currently the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall in the world outside of Berlin. This fall, we are launching The Surveillance Project, which involves, among other things, 178 pieces of original KGB, West German, and East German surveillance equipment that will be reformulated as a major art installation. I am keenly interested in how the past impacts the present.

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Do you have a specific ideological or political agenda or is yours, like mine, a fascination with how an aggressive ideology and totalitarian government held control and propagated its message?

The materials are already endowed with enough politics—so much so that when we produced our first installation, which simply followed international museum guidelines for the presentation of cultural materials, it was seen as a radical political statement. I think the "propaganda" story is one way to see it. You can also look at how official iconography was appropriated, transformed, and reproduced—which happens to be the central theme of my dissertation.

We produced an exhibition last year called ICONOCLASH! that deals with the change in form and meaning of Cold War symbols. In other words, the materials do not have intrinsic meaning - they mean different things at different times and require exploration of context. I am interested in Cold War visual culture as a case study. On the one hand, its exploration helps reveal aspects of human behavior, and on the other hand, I'm interested in what a museum is and should be. Our projects tend to look outside the brick-and-mortar context and synthesize techniques and disciplines.

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Where do your holdings come from?

The Wende has an unconventional collection that is collected in unconventional ways. We use every tool at our disposal, including advertisement, media, auctions, and word of mouth. Several months ago, a two-ton sculpture of Lenin by Bondarenko was close to being melted down in Latvia. We bought the sculpture from the smelter for the price of the bronze plus 5 percent. It came to Los Angeles just a couple of months ago.

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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