Sam McManis

Discoveries: Wende Museum preserves artifacts from Cold War

CULVER CITY Hours of homemade video, a bit shaky and fuzzy in that late-’80s cinéma vérité fashion, play in a loop on a TV screen mounted to a wall of a suite in a nondescript strip mall in this suburb west of Los Angeles.

Alternately boring and riveting, it consists of footage taken covertly by a guard from the East German side of the Berlin Wall, at Checkpoint Charlie, in the weeks leading up to its historic fall. You see the backs of stoic border guards in baggy uniforms and, just across the threshold, a gaggle of West German protesters in shorts and T-shirts standing their ground and shouting unintelligibly. Occasionally, a car passes from West to East, parting the crowd. Nothing much happens in the video, until something does: a volley of beer cans thrown at the guards, for instance, or chanting, or angry gestures, followed by renewed calm and more silent standoffs.

“This goes on for hours,” said Justinian Jampol, arms crossed and eyes not leaving the screen. “Even I haven’t seen all of it. It’s kind of fascinating.”

It’s fitting, perhaps, that this glimpse of the death throes of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc should come near the end of a visit to the Wende Museum, dedicated to documenting the Cold War from Stalin through Gorbachev, from the height of the Stasi oppression in the erstwhile German Democratic Republic to the early glimmers of freedom expressed by dissidents across Hungary and the Caucasus.

Painstakingly accumulated and curated by Wende staff led by Jampol, founder and executive director, this archive-cum-museum totals more than 100,000 Cold War items in a collection so large it needs four warehouses to accommodate it all. Come November, when the museum moves out of the business park that’s been its snug home since its opening in 2002 and into the spacious National Guard Armory a few miles away, it will be better situated to serve its mission of “preserving the past” and “informing the present” concerning a chapter in global politics that officially ended 25 years ago but remains fresh in mind and, given recent events in Ukraine, ripe for a sequel.

Even with only a fraction of the collection on view at present, visiting the Wende on its weekly Friday open house – or other week days, via appointment – lifts the (iron) curtain to expose a culture and political ideology that Americans at once feared, dreaded and were fascinated by.

Cloak-and-dagger Stasi surveillance equipment, featuring Bond-like hidden cameras and recorders in briefcases, take up an entire 2,000-square-foot space. Soviet Bloc artwork, everything from official political portraits to dissident paintings as depressing as anything Edward Hopper ever produced, line the downstairs warehouse. Busts of Vladimir Lenin, sent by people from Bulgaria to Belarus eager after the fall to move on, are tagged and placed on shelves like so many cereal boxes at a Costco.

Lenin’s stern visage is omnipresent, from a carved sculpture of the ideological father of Communism pointing an index finger at visitors to a plaster bust of him painted pink and turquoise by protesters during the 1989 revolution.

Scores of official documents, from the personal diary entries of deposed GDR leader Erich Honecker to the writings of Karl Marx, down to individual stamp collections and Russian restaurant menus, are cataloged. Ornate, hand-stitched flags from Eastern Bloc countries, some with hammer and sickle in gilt thread, are folded neatly in protective sleeves. Home movies from “ordinary” Soviet families are stacked in cans near preserved family scrapbooks.

There is furniture from the erstwhile Palace of the Republic in East Berlin and kitschy examples of central-government mass production at its finest: a polyurethane “garden egg chair” from 1968 that could be folded up and carried like a suitcase. The museum receives items almost daily – both unsolicited and those purchased via “scouts” combing Europe. Some items are still in shipping containers, awaiting inspection and inventory.

“Look at this,” Jampol said, bending down to peek through slats of a wooden shipping crate into what looks to be another Lenin bust, “we get stuff like this all the time.”

He hefts a package the size of a large shoe box, covered in loose white canvas and sealed at the sides with wax, and muses with a head shake that “they still wrap packages this way in many countries.” Someone at Wende, maybe even Jampol, will open the package, eventually, adding yet another piece of Cold War history to a collection that is growing at a rate Jampol said is “scary.” In fact, the museum lately has gotten more discriminating in what it accepts.

Much of Wende’s collection, Jampol said, would have been thrown out had he not struck upon the idea of saving it back in the mid-1990s, when he was doing doctorate work in Germany. He saw that people in former Eastern Bloc countries couldn’t get rid of Communist-era possessions fast enough. So, in 2002, with backing from donations and grants, Wende was born. The name is German for “turning point,” a reference to the swift changes wrought by the fall of Communism.

“This is a past that’s becoming history,” Jampol said. “The process has historically been that a lot of the materials crucial to research do not last. They are thrown away; they are neglected. Back in 2002, we didn’t find a great amount of interest (in objects). It’d been 15 years since the wall fell and people there were moving on. So one of our tasks is to identify objects that might be used for either an exhibit or a research project that have been being excluded from (other) museum collections (in the former Eastern Bloc).

“The museum itself is a story, not only about the Cold War but how the Cold War was thought of afterward and how materials were not being fully appreciated for their potential as sources of information and research.”

So while museums in Hungary, for instance, were divesting themselves of any art produced during the period of Soviet rule, roughly 1945 to 1989, because, Jampol said, “they are not authentically Hungarian, being imposed by Russia,” the Wende gladly took possession. Jampol pointed to an oil painting from Hungary in the 1950s, showing a patriotic worker on a tractor tilling fields for the State.

“But, look, in the same country, 10 years later, this is going on,” he said, pointing to an impressionistic painting, “Automation,” by Hungarian artist Gyorgy Kadar – a work that certainly didn’t hew to the Communist theme of collective thought over individual expression. “The Hungarian government was just getting rid of large swaths of art.”

If the museum functioned merely as a repository for Cold War nostalgia, it would still be an interesting stop for historians and the curious public. But Jampol’s ambitions go beyond collection for collection’s sake.

“Look, I’m a Cold War historian, so I get it. And that (nostalgia) is always going to be a thread, along with the research part and helping to shape the way we understand the past. But, frankly, if we only did that, this museum would just be about something that happened 25 years ago thousands of miles away.”

The Wende, he said, strives to be a hybrid between a history museum and an art museum, coupled with a research center for academics. In its current cramped quarters, it cannot accommodate major exhibits, but the new Armory site will.

“We struggle with the issue of not only being relevant, but having a significant impact on a larger, more contemporary global perspective,” he said.

Already, the Wende has taken steps to broaden its appeal and reach a younger audience born after the Berlin Wall fell. Los Angeles street artists have come to the museum to find symbols to stencil for their works, several feature film directors doing period pictures have consulted the Wende, and Jampol said items from the “Surveillance Room” often are on loan to other museums, such as the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. The Wende’s profile was significantly raised in 2009 when it partnered with Southern California artists to erect a synthetic wall across Wilshire Boulevard, across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and invited people to tear it down.

In the years since, the museum has partnered with the publisher Benedikt Taschen to produce a 1,000-page coffee-table book featuring Cold War artifacts, to be published this fall. Jampol said more than 10 documentaries have used footage or artifacts from the Wende to augment their stories.

“And the author of ‘Food: The History of Taste’ (Yale’s Paul Freedman) was doing some research about how the names of dishes could be politicized,” Jampol said. “We found him more than 2,000 menus from the East Bloc, the largest collection in the world.”

Items sent to the Wende from overseas often arrive “on our doorstep with only notes,” Jampol said, such as, “This was meant to be burned, but I couldn’t do it. This was my life’s work.”

It’s not always so easy for the curator, though. One of the most fascinating wings of the Wende is the “Face of the Wall” exhibit. Jampol and others had to persuade two Eastern and two Western border guards at Checkpoint Charlie to share their often contradictory, stories and memorabilia. It’s a fascinating look at how residents of the East tried, and often failed, to escape using doctored passports or other nefarious means.

“History is complicated because people are,” Jampol said. “Each one had a personal collection to support their version of the story.”

Row upon row of mug shots line one wall, showing people who were stopped at Checkpoint Charlie trying to cross with a photo ID of someone, often a relative, who had similar facial features. The head guard on the East side of the border donated all of his “high tech” methods for sussing out phony passports, including how he measured the lengths of people’s ears in photos to determine authenticity.

“Nobody knew about this system at the time,” Jampol said. “It had been a rumor. Never confirmed.”

All is exposed now. The secrets are out, and they reside in a business park in Culver City, coming soon to a larger venue nearby.