The Wende Museum: Preserving the Cold War in Culver City
Nov. 9, 2014, marks 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall -- what Germans call the “Wende,” or turning point. It was the end of the Cold War, the end of an era and, in a practical sense, the end of a country, East Germany. The Wende Museum in Culver City (Los Angeles County) is keeping its memories alive.
The main storage hall in the museum looks like a smaller version of that one in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," crossed with a really messy IKEA. Aisles of industrial shelving are piled 15 feet high with stacks of film reels, modernist chairs from the 1960s, briefcases of decommissioned spy equipment, Hungarian paintings, even a gas pump.
Cultural historian Justin Jampol started the collection 12 years ago. “The Wende Museum has become this sort of like alternative repository,” he says. It began with East German stuff that, frankly, no one else wanted.
“There are collections that were, for lack of a better word, orphaned,” he explains.
At the end of the Cold War, Jampol says, everything from the East was a reminder of the bad old days: “In 1999, East German artwork was backed in plastic and put on the ground, along with Third Reich artworks, so people could walk around it, and it was wrapped in garbage bags.”
People couldn't get past the politics of East Bloc music, furniture, even family scrapbooks. Overnight, they became worthless, or embarrassing. All people wanted to do was to get rid of them.
As a historian, Jampol wanted to save them. The question was -- where to put it all? Jampol's answer: His hometown, Los Angeles.
“It’s often criticized for not having a history of its own but in fact there is freedom in that. And it also means that people are open to learning about a past that might not be their own.”
Today, the Wende Museum is one of the world's largest collections of material culture from the former East Bloc, hundreds of thousands of pieces. New boxes arrive every week from Germany, Hungary, the Ukraine -- people sending away memories of the Cold War, or safeguarding them. In Los Angeles, free of their history, they can take on a new meaning. Take the museum's piece of the Berlin Wall, installed in May on Wilshire Boulevard.
“If the Berlin Wall installation is in Berlin, it's about this border that separated people East and West in Berlin. There's no other meaning to it, because that's where it occurred, that's what happened,” says Jampol.
But in L.A., it's become a place for talking about the present, not the past. There have been protests there against the U.S.-Mexico border and the Chinese government. “It is still one of the top locations for engagement photos for the Korean community in L.A., which is on the first glance surprising. Maybe on the second hand not so surprising, since Korea has a wall, too,” he says.
Right now, the museum itself is just a few rooms in an office park, and most of the collection is in storage. But starting this week, the Wende Museum will give new life to another Cold War relic -- this time, an American one. It's moving to a nearby location in Culver City, a decommissioned armory built in 1950.
The Wende Museum opens in its new location next year. To see some of the collection before then, see Justin Jampol's new book about the collection, "Beyond the Wall."