In this series, we will be highlighting archives and museums that specialize in REECAS related material. Along the way, we hope to explore themes of memory, representation, culture, and the interplay of history and the present. How can academic and archival institutions responsibly collect, display, and educate? What is the relationship between sources and interpretation? We will consider a number of various collections across borders and time.
Cold War Forever
by Michael Brinley
Last fall, amidst all the commemorative celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall (including a string arrangement of David Bowie’s “Heroes” with a vocal performance by Peter Gabriel in front of the Brandenburg Gate), a symposium on security in Europe was underway in Germany’s restored capital. Mikhail Gorbachev delivered, what will most likely be, his final high profile address. He called the German Question of the Cold War period the “naked nerve” of international politics and recalled the importance of “champions” for the “epochal” changes in the international system that took place between 1989 and 1991. His speech was a warning, one that most of the attendees didn’t need to be reminded of, but there didn’t seem to be any other speech for him to give at such an occasion and with the roiling Ukrainian conflict looming large.
There is an inherent tension in fixing a process in the historical narrative. The end of the Cold War and the normalization of relations between two nuclear armed powers was accompanied by unprecedented and unexpected political and cultural changes, the most signal of which was Germany’s reunification. Memory of this event has been ossifying into recognizable patterns and stages. Initial complete rejection of Communist past was followed by burgeoning, reactionary nostalgia (Ostalgie in this case)
The Wende Museum was started by Justinian Jampol, a native of Los Angeles, who was studying in Berlin during the reunification process and realized how many valuable historic resources were being neglected or even actively destroyed in the euphoric frenzy of political reorientation. He began collecting uniforms, flags, and maps and from this, somewhat inauspicious beginning, emerged multiple collections of over 100,000 artifacts of Cold War material culture. Reels of unprocessed film, photographs, artwork, statues, textbooks, periodicals, cutlery, and decorative plates makeup just a portion of what you will see if you tour the museum. The collections are oriented more towards aesthetic interests, with an emphasis on the artistic and design merits of Cold War era memorabilia. However, the Wende Museum remains of great value from a research and archival perspective. Jampol has acquired the longest continuous portion of the Berlin Wall outside of Berlin, which is prominently on display across from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Jampol’s efforts began with collections from the GDR, but quickly began to expand and include entries from all over the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union. The museum holds an excellent collection of Soviet protest art in the genre of the propaganda poster known as the Ferris Collection due to its contributor, the late Tom Ferris, a Beverly Hills high school teacher with a strong interest in Russia. The Museum also hold the personal papers of the last leader of the GDR, Erich Honecker, who willed that they not be kept in a German institution.
The popularity of Cold War material culture since the end of the Soviet period has entered into a new phase, one where the stakes are higher as the tensions between Russia and the “West” are increasing and institutional modes of collaboration are being curtailed. Symbols of defunct regimes are reinvigorated with meaning and opinions change about the instrumentality of memory. The Wende Museum has found itself in a moment of transition, both physically as they hope to move into a larger more prominent facility in the National Guard’s decommissioned Armory in Culver City, and as regards their mission. As Jampol stated in an interview with The Atlantic, “I am keenly interested in how the past impacts the present.”
Last fall, during the Berlin Wall celebrations, Justinian Jampol and benefactor Benedikt Taschen drove
a vintage Trabant into the Culver City exhibition for the breaking ground ceremony at the new location. Trabants are frequent symbols of Ostalgie in Germany today, where collectors gather for vintage rallies, spewing smoke and sputtering motors that almost laugh in defiance of Germany’s automotive reputation. Preserving and collecting Eastern Europe’s recent communist past is a pursuit fraught with political difficulty, but one that is certainly worth the effort. Since they cannot be avoided, the uses of the past for the present should always be acknowledged. Most famous as the home of Sony Picture Studios, Culver City, might not be where you’d expect a premiere Cold War archive to emerge. But as Jampol said to LA times reporter Liesl Bradner, maybe, ““Being so far away gives us a unique reference point and perspective.”