Those who lived through the German Democratic Republic (GDR) might be happy to forget it. But for Los Angeles native Justinian Jampol, Cold War-era East Germany comprised a wealth of ideological, industrial, commercial, and cultural artifacts that he made it his mission to preserve—in a single archive.
The Wende Museum, which Jampol founded in 2002 as a grad student in Modern history at Oxford University, is now located in Culver City, CA, and contains over 100,000 individual pieces of GDR ephemera, quite possibly the greatest such collection in the world. 2,500 of these materials are logged in Beyond the Wall: Art and Artifacts from the GDR, a 904-page picture book published and edited by Benedikt Taschen of Taschen Books. The work chronicles the GDR’s hybrid approach to Eastern and Western design, which echoed capitalist styles while, at the same time, rejecting its ideology.
Jampol began collecting a range of artifacts—including menus, scrapbooks, and documentary films—to build an historical archive of everyday life in the GDR. In the process, he found that growing numbers of scholars and students were doing the same. To encourage the growth of the Wende collection, Jampol inverted the traditional top-down curatorial museum model and sought out funds to empower these researchers to acquire collections and house them in Wende’s permanent collection, which is open to the public and to academics.
Everything was a depressing, monochromatic grey when I visited East Berlin before the Wall came down. Yet a lot of the commercial products produced in the GDR were relatively colorful. Jampol explained the phenomenon this way: “The East, like the West, claimed to be modern, and this was represented through a range of signifiers, including furniture, color palettes, and materials, especially plastics.” Plastic, which was molded into dinnerware, radios and other consumables, was considered the ultimate socialist material: It was cheap, malleable, and could be easily mass-produced. The GDR even campaigned to convince East Germans to forsake traditional wooden objects, which they portrayed as backwards and bourgeois.