Friday, August 31, 2012

The Wende Museum

Friday, August 31, 2012
My Cost: FREE!

5741 Buckingham Parkway
Culver City, CA 90230

This is a fantastic "secret museum" that I would recommend to anyone interested in 20th century history! The Wende Musuem: a Museum and Archive of the Cold War, is not a super kid-friendly destination, but they were very accommodating of my little ones, so if this interests you, or possibly your children, I say go for it! Just be advised there are stairs and no elevator. 

There is no charge for admission, and you can visit any weekday (M-Th) with an appointment, or on Fridays without an appointment. The hours are between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm. (Because it is more of an archive and educational institution than a tourist destination, they are only open during typical work hours, and no weekends.) I did learn that there are plans in the works to move to the Culver City Armory, which would be a more permanent, visitor-friendly home for the archive. So if you want to be able to see it in its more "secret" or "hidden" stage, I'd suggest going sooner rather than later.

Despite being the world's largest Cold War visual archive, not too many people have ever heard of The Wende. ("Wende," by the way, is German for "turning" or "turning point," which refers to the 1989 tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.) I first learned about this museum, (which was incorporated in 2002,) back in 2006 via an email group I belonged to. Another member of the group advertised that the museum was looking for a Russian speaker to help them with their recent poster acquisitions, and I ended up with the job. So from 2006 into mid-2007, I would spend about 10 hours a week in the back of the vault unrolling tubes of posters, (some were very fragile,) repairing the tears, flattening them, photographing them, logging the description in the inventory database, and filing them away. It was a fascinating, albeit somewhat lonely pursuit, but since I was interested in the material, I enjoyed it! Back then I emailed myself a few pictures of some favorites, so here are a few (I put translations in the captions):

"We are the party of the future, and the future belongs to the youth." -Lenin

"Check out my work: at night with clients, three days home..."
How did we make it, (this question isn't a joke,) so that an honest person lives worse than a prostitute?
[Prostitution was a prominent theme - a big problem in the 1980's.]

Killing yourself with a cigarette,
You're not only killing yourself.
Since I had a work history here, (although there has been a lot of turnover in the staff, and no one remembers me,) I contacted them last week and asked if I could bring my two small kids and tour the vault. 

I was realizing that, now that it's 2012, there are a lot of people already in their twenties who don't have any first-hand memories of the Cold War! In 1991, which was the official end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, I was one year away from starting high school. I remember having a subconscious fear of the Russians and of a nuclear holocaust as a child. I remember Gorbachev's grape juice-stained head. I remember that all the bad guys in all the movies were Russians (played by American actors with really terrible accents.) I remember the hammer and sickle being a negative symbol. I remember having an innate sense of pride in capitalism, although I probably didn't understand what it was. I remember Ronald Reagan saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." And I remember live coverage of the wall actually coming down! I visited Russia for the first time in 1998 and saw many remnants of the communist era - early morning calisthenics for children, brusque sounding radio broadcasts, and so many monuments! I visited Berlin for the first time in 2001 and saw Checkpoint Charlie and what is left of the Wall. I met a cab driver who told me that he had been working nights and sleeping days, so he had missed the big announcement. When he picked up his first fare of the night, and the young man asked to be taken to West Berlin, he thought it was a joke, but he was able to drive through and no one stopped him. It's all such an integral part of the era of my youth that I am so grateful that Justinian Jampol started to collect these items out of a personal sense of responsibility to the past. We often don't realize how easy it is for those ubiquitous objects to just, suddenly, vanish.

When you are trying to find the museum for the first time, you have to remember you are looking for a suite in a business park, not your typical museum. It is across and down from the Fox Hills Mall, and next to the Holly Cross Cemetery. The signs you are looking for are these: 

At the entrance to the business park.

A pretty nondescript bank of business suites.

See the bottom listing - Suite E is the Wende.
Outside the entrance is a section of the original Berlin Wall. It was painted by an artist, Theirry Noir, who was also one of the original artists to paint the West German Wall in 1984. Oh, and FYI, they also have ten segments of the original East-German facing wall,  (which was never painted the way the West German side was,) that have been painted by modern muralists and are on display directly across from LACMA at 5900 Wilshire Blvd. These segments were unveiled in November 2009 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Wall coming down in what was dubbed The Wall Project.

The Wall segment at the entrance, with the stroller for scale reference.

On the first floor is a room that displays a collection of items intended to recall Checkpoint Charlie and convey the feeling of what it was like for people to cross between the two halves of Berlin.

Street signs from the Checkpoint zone. At the bottom is the model described in the next photo.

Warnings posted in English, French, Russian and German.

Vivi and Alex absorbing the ambiance.

My favorite objects - passports from an assortment of Soviet countries.

The rest of the displayed items are not in such specific thematic groupings. There are assorted items which, save for the display case of books, are all upstairs. (We had to leave the stroller down below.) There is a large room that leads to a smaller room. Both rooms are filled with more or less permanent displays, (although the wall art is rotated, I understand,) and a side room (probably meant as an office,) that is a rotating display, currently on textiles.
Children's books from former Soviet countries.

The main display room. Chairs are occasionally used for screenings, etc.  I was told the way to find out about such happenings is to sign up for their newsletter. Contact them at

Decorative plates bearing different messages and themes.

A plate close-up. It is German, and reads "25th Pioneer Birthday: 1947-1973". Pioneers were the Soviet's program for nearly all school children ages 10-15. It was training for their later membership in the Komsomol, ("KOMmunesticheskii SOiyuz MOLodezhei," which means "Communist Union of Youth.") 

A wall of other interesting Cold War objects.

As a trombonist, I am drawn to the horn - called a Schalmei. It has seven bells for each of the seven valve options.
(There are six valves only, but the seventh option is to not press any valves.)

In the textile room, a latch-hook rug depicting Soviet symbols.
The hammer and sickle represent industry and agriculture working together.

A "locker room" corner showing various Soviet sports items. Vivi was drawn to the ball in the bottom of the right locker. The CCCP emblazoned on uniforms, (and many souvenir items even now,) stands for "Soiyuz Sovyetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublic," only Russian "S"s look like "C"s, and Russian "R"s look like "P"s. It means "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR.

This painted Lenin bust is what you might call the "face" of the Museum. He is reproduced and used in much of their material.

I have always been drawn to sculpture that idealizes the working class. They always look so strong and mighty! Even this miner.

Photos and posters. The top poster explains how, in the United States, one in three children aren't going to school because we are spending so much (74%, I believe,) of our budget on the military. It's interesting to see things that paint the U.S. as the bad guys.

The highlight for me, though, was stepping into the vault. I was anxious to see how much it had changed. In truth, the collection of "stuff" just got bigger. The tops of shelves are now official storage space, there are more wardrobe-type containers up against walls. There are also many more workstations. Several interns and other staff help catalog all the new acquisitions constantly coming in. I also learned they have two other off-site storage spaces! If you are looking for Soviet-era stuff, they are the people to see! The storage boxes have every kind of "thing" imaginable: typewriters, plates, cups, toys, books, art, postcards, etc.)

From the top of the stairs looking down, you can see how the top of shelving is being utilized. The furniture is an East German Design collection.

A pile of uniforms on a work station next to a tidy collection of boxes.

These chairs resemble makeup compacts, and were designed to be used outdoors as they are waterproof when closed.
(Although they were just too cool and were mostly used indoors.)

I didn't get pictures of the enormous collection of busts, but I did get this one picture of Vivi squeezing herself in between Lenin heads.

Hundreds of film reels for mostly vocational or educational films. The amount of just this one type of item should give you an idea of how vast this collection really is.
I was able to see a lot, but I would have loved to see a lot more. Unfortunately, when you have an 18-month old banging on boxes and twanging on bungee cords, and picking up hats and helmets, and almost stepping on flags, staying a long time is really not an option. But I would encourage anyone who has the option, to come, and stay, and look, and learn, and remember for a very long time.

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