San Rafael’s Museum of International Propaganda Reopens Just in Time

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A display at the Museum of International Propaganda. (Britta Shoot)

On the top shelf of a display case, there’s an Adolf Hitler pincushion. Hanging from the ceiling nearby, a handmade photo mobile includes images of Hungary’s last communist leader, János Kádár, and the despotic president who ruled Turkmenistan following its independence from the Soviet Union, Saparmurat Niyazov.

On one wall is a massive Gejza Salay Socialist Realism painting depicting a Red Army soldier liberating children from German troops. Its previous home was Tom Areton’s Bratislava high school.

These jarring pieces of history are part of a larger, deeply informative whole at the Museum of International Propaganda in San Rafael. Founded in 2016—and recently reopened to the public after closing for half the year due to the coronavirus pandemic—the small, impactful, free museum was established by Tom and his wife and partner of 50 years, Lilka.

An Adolph Hitler pincushion at the Museum of International Propaganda. (Britta Shoot)

While its focus feels timely in an era of rising authoritarianism, curating the museum spanned several decades and trips to more than 80 countries. The MIP is built on the couple’s private collection, which was kept in their family room until Lilka had the idea to share their remarkable trove with the public.

After meeting in New York City, the Aretons married and moved to Northern California in 1970. In 1980, they founded Cultural Homestay International. The education nonprofit specializes in student and cultural exchanges and has enabled them to travel extensively throughout their life together.

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In what may be the final weeks of the Trump administration, many in the Bay Area still struggle to understand the 45th president’s continued popularity in other regions of the country. Arguably, a lot of it comes down to propaganda, emotional manipulation that is most effective when people’s lives feel untenable. A tour through the information-packed exhibits at the MIP illustrates how government-backed advertising and state-managed media can cultivate and disseminate further feelings of distrust.

A display at the museum with Tom Areton's wall text. (Britta Shoot)

Concise, powerful displays introduce visitors to the function of propaganda, whether that’s the glorification of the nation through images of exaggerated prosperity and happiness, or the vilification of religious and ethnic minorities or other political groups. Without ever endorsing a point of view or editorializing, the museum displays are tightly focused on visual, political propaganda of the past century—nothing related to religion or elections.

Tom’s clever descriptions burnish and offset the bizarre, sometimes harrowing imagery. Agitprop posters are interspersed with large glossy prints of the Aretons’ own photographs of monuments to fascist leaders. Physical objects include menacing stone busts of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin alongside one of the wristwatches given to soldiers stationed at Tiananmen Square.

While some of the MIP’s posters are obvious spin, other pieces demonstrate the subtleties of political persuasion. The painting of Lenin that hangs over the front desk depicts a burly, broad-shouldered Bolshevik; in reality, Lenin was a short, relatively slight man. A pro-suffrage poster from the United Kingdom argues convincingly—and correctly—that enshrining women’s right to vote is a constructive, noble cause.

A piece of pro-women's suffrage material from the Museum of International Propaganda. (Britta Shoot)

The negative effects of political propaganda loom large in the Aretons’ personal histories. Tom’s mother lived under Nazi rule in Germany, and Tom grew up in socialist Czechoslovakia. He came to the United States in October 1968, two months after the Warsaw Pact invasion of his home country.

Lilka was raised in a Marxist-leaning home in staunchly Republican New Jersey. Before attending college, she traveled around Europe, eventually finding a friend to share the driving from Helsinki to Moscow via Leningrad. In the summer of 1960, she spent her 20th birthday in the Soviet Union, observing a tense season for U.S.-Soviet relations: American pilot Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane had just been shot down.

Collecting propaganda is a complicated endeavor in preserving ephemeral material culture that is often actively destroyed when a despised ruler is deposed. That’s why even the persistent Aretons have only a single, rare poster of Romania’s genocidal communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was ousted (and executed) in 1989.

Nazi memorabilia can also be challenging to source, and some donors don’t want acknowledgement. One recent afternoon, the museum’s docent-curator Claudette Masters arrived to find a brass ashtray holder with a swastika base sitting outside the front door.

A view of the Museum of International Propaganda from Court Street in San Rafael. (Britta Shoot)

Masters was integral in staging the museum’s latest temporary exhibition. The late Bay Area World War II veteran Robert Bru was a Jewish American who was held as a prisoner of war. When his German captors gave him copies of the Nazi tabloid, Der Stürmer, he was astonished by the anti-Semitic cartoons and saved copies for decades. Last year, at age 99, he donated his collection to the museum. “Learning his story lifted history right off the page,” Masters says.

COVID-19 has paused one of the Aretons’ favorite aspects of running their self-funded gallery: welcoming groups from schools and senior centers. A gifted speaker, Tom has been giving virtual talks to community organizations and recording videos about his favorite museum pieces to lure guests back. When indoor gatherings are safe again, the couple looks forward to resuming their Wednesday movie nights. They regularly screen hard-to-find documentaries, and Tom pours his award-winning wine, made from vineyard grapes grown near their San Anselmo home.

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Seeking to make meaning of current political rhetoric in the halls of historic propaganda doesn’t mean being forced to look at modern memorabilia. There is one small table of contemporary materials: Ronald and Nancy Reagan slippers, a laughing Hillary Clinton statuette, a talking Donald Trump pen. The Aretons note this is intentional; their focus is on events and leaders further in our rearview. There is certainly space for that table’s collection to grow, but first, we have so many historical lessons to continue revisiting. As Lilka says, “It’s a long century.”