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
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.
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.
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.
We also use a system of scouts. These are individuals who traverse Eastern Europe in a van and acquire objects straight from the source. For instance, we acquired a complete collection of fabric swatches from a former designer for the state design council of East Germany and communist Hungary. Other times, governments have de-accessioned their collections. We recently acquired over 70 artworks from the Hungarian government that were found in the basement of the former headquarters of the secret police. We know we cannot possibly preserve everything, nor should we. We have to be careful and strategic about what we pursue.
What would you say are your signature holdings? And what more would you like to acquire?
I am most interested in collecting materials that are aesthetically interesting, provide information, and tend to be ignored by more traditional research institutions or museums. For instance, Communist folk art, Soviet tapestries, and menus. Our collection of menus is significant—the designs are fascinating, the prices indicate economics of food, and the ingredients suggest taste and access. They are pretty wonderful sources that have been largely ignored. Paul Freedman, historian at Yale University, has written several articles about this collection. I am now interested in collecting home movies, scrapbooks, fan mail, and postcards—materials that suggest the existence of a fuzzy line between politics and culture.
There was a fascinating exhibit at Berlin's German History Museum about everyday life in East Berlin during the GDR period. It made sense to open that material to the people because many lived through it. Are you equally showing American Cold War propaganda and how it influenced and manipulated our citizens?
There are some great narrative museums out there. That is not our approach. We are not trying to tell people "how it was." There are endless lived realities. That does not just apply to East European history. That applies to every culture in every time period. The museum provides resources to investigate a multitude of lived realities. While one could do this with American Cold War materials, we limit ourselves to Eastern Europe. Because it's an extinct geo-political society, there is an added archaeological dimension.
How do you get your message and material to the public? And also to scholars?
One of the most rewarding parts about this job is thinking about new ways to engage our audiences by bringing the collections out into the open. This is achieved through projects in the urban landscape and by developing new online tools. We are working on a wiki-catalog that will allow the public to contribute to the creation of artifacts records and to upload videos and other content. We produce online exhibitions, including most recently with the University of Leipzig, that provide access to shared knowledge. In addition to this, we host an annual conference or workshop for international scholars and students, loan materials to museum and institutions around the world, and produce and publish research projects. Next year, Taschen is publishing an 800-page encyclopedia of our collections. Throughout all of these activities, collaboration is essential.
Do you believe, as I sometimes do, that we've overly fetishized and aestheticized these artifacts to the point that they no longer have a strong lesson to teach?
Some of the materials in our collection are beautiful, some are kitsch, but that's also not the lens through which we collect or how we prioritize their value. Certainly in Eastern Europe, these materials are often either perceived as nostalgic remnants of an extinct culture or instrumentalized as political lessons. But if this is the case, there is no point in having a museum on the subject. The rationale for preserving large collections is not sufficient if it's merely proof of an emotional state or political lesson. The utility of the Wende collection is rooted in differentiation and the possibility of using it for many purposes.
Images: Courtesy of the Wende Museum