The Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City is tucked away in an anonymous office park. But crammed inside the nondescript warehouse is the largest collection of Cold War-era artifacts and artwork outside of Europe, from hand-painted kitchenware and children’s toys to surveillance equipment and busts of Stalin and Lenin.
The name Wende (pronounced “venda”) means “turning point” or “change” in German and refers broadly to the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The museum is undergoing its own transition, as it moves to a larger permanent location nearby, the former National Guard Armory building. A ticketed gala and a free community open house is scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 18-19.
Justin Jampol, the Wende Museum’s executive director, founded the museum in 2002 when he was 24. A native of Los Angeles, Jampol graduated from UCLA and has a doctorate in modern European history from Oxford University. In the mid-1990s, he recognized the need to preserve Soviet-era materials for research and educational purposes. After the Cold War ended in 1991, people were eager to get rid of their belongings. Historical markers and statues were toppled and vandalized, archives were destroyed, and photos and film were allowed to decay. Jampol began traveling to the Eastern Bloc to collect artworks, clothing, restaurant menus, home movies and chunks of the Berlin Wall.
The grass-roots effort soon expanded into a museum and research institution consisting of more than 100,000 artifacts that tell the story of life behind the Iron Curtain. The museum’s location in Los Angeles proved to be an asset, said its chief curator, Joes Segal. Being far removed from anti-Soviet sentiments helped them secure the personal papers of East German state leader Erich Honecker and a huge archive of documents from the border guards of Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin.
“All these people realized that in Germany itself these materials would be interpreted in a very political way,” Segal said. “So the geographical distance was to our advantage.”
With the museum’s move to a larger location, the public will be able to see more of its collection, which the museum’s leadership hopes will help raise the museum’s profile in L.A.’s cultural landscape.
“It hasn’t been a public-facing institution, which is why, while we are renowned within the field, the public knowledge of the museum is significantly less now than it will be when we’re in the new space,” Jampol said.
The Wende Museum’s new home will include two exhibition spaces, to be changed three times a year, as well as a permanent exhibition space. It will also have a gift shop and coffee stand, and an outdoor sculpture garden with a fountain and movie screen.
The building also has a Cold War legacy, in what Segal calls “a paradox of history.” As the Cold War was escalating in 1949, the armory was built to withstand Soviet bombs in the event of World War III and has two above-ground nuclear fallout shelters.
The new location’s inaugural exhibition, “Cold War Spaces,” explores private, work, border, secret, outer, utopian and changing spaces of socialist cultures. Objects include a 1970 poster of a Soviet moon rover, a top-secret map of divided Berlin, surveillance equipment and a model of the Sputnik satellite.
The museum’s recently launched discussion series, “Art-Past-Present,” will continue in the new space, as well as experimental collaborations with artists and research institutions.
“What we try to do is use the Cold War past as a kind of treasure trove to think about the present,” Segal said.
Other upcoming exhibitions involve collaborations: with the Getty Research Institute, for a show on Hungarian visual culture; with the Wellcome Library of medical history in London, for a show called “The War of Nerves” about the psychological history of the Cold War; and with the University of Bristol in England, for an exhibition on Soviet hippie culture.
Besides acquiring rare and threatened objects, the museum also collects the stories behind the objects. The museum’s Historical Witness Project began as a series of recorded conversations with collectors who have donated items to the Wende and has expanded to include oral and written testimonies of scholars, artists, filmmakers and everyday citizens of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
The Wende Museum also produced a documentary directed by Mark Hayes called “From Red State to Golden State: Soviet Jewish Immigration to the City of Angels.” It follows several Jewish families that left the Soviet Union to build new lives in Southern California during the 1970s and 1980s. Much of the community is centered in West Hollywood, which has the second-largest concentration of Soviet Jewish immigrants outside of New York City. The film premiered in 2013 to a sold-out audience at the Autry Museum of the American West.
Several objects in the Wende Museum’s collection have a link to Soviet Jews. One such object is a small Soviet-Russian photo album from the city of Birobidzhan, the capital of Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the former U.S.S.R. The album, issued in the 1950s by the communist youth organization, showcases photos of buildings in the community.
Other objects include two Bukharan Jewish family portraits from 1957 and from 1966, and a silver Russian Kiddush cup with an embossed pattern depicting a village, homes and gardens.
Segal said collecting Jewish artifacts has been challenging “because those materials tend either to stay in families or are sold or donated to Jewish institutions.”
In 2014, Taschen Books published Jampol’s 904-page encyclopedia of The Wende Museum’s East German collection called “Beyond the Wall: Art and Artifacts From the GDR.” The massive tome includes a 56-page facsimile of a German Democratic Republic family scrapbook documenting their real and imagined travels in East Germany and elsewhere.
The Wende’s highest-profile installation was staged in 2009, when, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jampol brought 10 segments of the original wall from Germany and placed them along Wilshire Boulevard, directly across from LACMA. Notable graffiti artists took turns decorating them in front of an audience of thousands.
“The museum,” Jampol said, “has become a kind of matchmaker for people of all walks of life and diverse interests to try to find the connective tissue between the historical collections and their own personal interests.”
The Wende Museum of the Cold War reopens Nov. 18-19 at the former National Guard Armory building at 10808 Culver Blvd., Culver City. For more information about the ticketed gala and free community open house, go to wendemuseum.org.