Wende Museum: Los Angeles’s cold war institute arrives as another front opens

With Russian interference in US politics on the daily news agenda, the museums focus on Soviet-inspired art and artifacts could not be more timely

Tense divisions over a border wall, a proliferation of fake news and the looming threat from Moscow have roiled a nation, effectively splitting it in two.

Were talking about Germany, between 1961 and 1989.

The uncanny parallels between Europe then and the United States now make interesting timing for the reopening of the Wende Museum, an institution devoted to the history of the cold war. Having occupied a modest suite in a nondescript office park since its founding in 2002, the museum reopens on Sunday in a much larger, perhaps more fitting home: a 1949 former national guard armory with 13,000 square feet of storage and exhibition space.

The inaugural exhibition, Cold War Spaces, by the museums chief curator, Joes Segal, features stunning contemporary photography of Soviet relics: the trees that have grown amid Chernobyls ruins, the extraterrestrial architecture of desolate military checkpoints, the lone statue of a late German Communist party leader covered in graffiti while raising its fist in an empty Berlin square. But the core of the show are the items pulled from Wendes collection of more than 100,000 Soviet-era artifacts, including military maps and surveillance equipment and busts
of Lenin.

Eschewing any disciplinary categorizations or hierarchies, the exhibition shows espionage equipment and official archives alongside the kind of trinkets and ephemera that are forgotten in a grandmothers attic; across the aisle from a Checkpoint Charlie guards analogue handbook for facial recognition, theres a small porcelain rocketship sculpted with the likenesses of Belka and Strelka, two of the first dogs to go on a Sputnik mission and return alive.

Isolation station: Putbuser Strae. Photograph: Maurizio Camagna/Wende Museum

Theres are also plenty of examples of Hungarian socialist realist paintings of glorified farmers and factory workers, acquired at auction when state-run museums deaccessioned and purged their archives. In the rightwing administration of Hungary, everything in public collections is being thrown out, says Segal. One of the auctions was chaired by a standup comedian in Hungary to stress the point, This is all socialist rubbish. Get rid of it.

Over the last 15 years, the collection has become a kind of steward for an array of cast-offs like these, what Wende historian, founder and executive director Justinian Jampol calls orphan objects.

Thats not to say that no one cares about them, although that is often the case, but that there was no obvious institutional home for them, he says, using the museums collection of 2,000 different Soviet-era menus as an example. Menus are fascinating. They tell you about food, recipes, prices, and who gets to eat them. But where do they live? Certainly not in government archives, and barely in museums.

Material culture is a reference point for human relationships, Lampol adds, which makes Wende a different kind of museum. It treats the cold war as a lived experience, rather than a set of conflicts, dates and leaders. When he founded Wende (named for the German word the turn, used to describe the transition period after the fall of the Wall) in 2002, Thecold war occupied a strange place in the historical timeline, not contemporary enough to be political science and not far enough to be history.

In 2017, in light of rising tensions between the US, Russia and North Korea dominating the headlines, the cold war has resurfaced with urgent relevance, prompting questions as to whether it ever really ended.

It wasnt Reagan saying Mr Gorbachev tear down this wall and a sudden fall of the system, says Jampol. Its just different now. The cold war is full of master narratives on both sides about what happened and whos to blame. People have a nostalgia of the simplicity of us versus them, but its always been more complex than that. I hope that the museum dismantles that a bit.

Of course, over the years, not everyone has been pleased with that assessment. Jampol saves the voicemails of visitors irate that the museum doesnt more prominently exalt Ronald Reagan, or questioning exactly whose side hes on. But with the complexity of our political reality now, the Wende Museum can nudge us toward a necessary recontextualization of history. A piece of the Berlin Wall in Los Angeles in 2017, for example, amid our own bitter debates over border security, resonates a more clear and present meaning than any ordinary historical artifact.

Its poetic that were in a national guard armory, Jampol adds. It was obsolete by the time it was built, but its a reminder of our central role in this, too that it was recent. It hasnt left us, and the last couple of years have been a reminder.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/nov/21/wende-museum-los-angeless-cold-war-institute-arrives-as-another-front-opens

Author: Billy Roland

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