A turning point for Wende Museum of the Cold War

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A World War II armory becomes the permanent home for the Wende Museum of the Cold War, just as Russia and the U.S. revive old tensions. But what do former East Germans think about it?

Vandalized Lenin Bust, from the Wende Museum collection (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Fifteen years ago Justinian Jampol began collecting the art, artifacts and detritus of the daily lives of people from the former Eastern Block.

This was the foundation for the Wende Museum of the Cold War, which now has a collection of 100,000 objects ranging from statues of political leaders and state-sanctioned art to tea towels, restaurant menus, military uniforms and toys like the Pittiplatsch hand puppets beloved by children in former East Germany. It is the largest collection of Soviet-era art and artifacts outside of Europe.

Now Wende — German for “turning point” or “change” — has gone through a big change of its own. It has moved from its longtime cramped space in a nondescript office park in Culver City to a permanent home in a space that comes with a nice historic twist: a National Guard Armory built by the US Army in 1949 with, says Jampol, “the explicit purpose of surviving a first strike of Soviet bombs.”

With a big assist from many supporters, including art and design book publisher Benedikt Taschen and designer and preservationist Michael Boyd, the concrete bunker-like building has become an open, light-filled, unadorned space with galleries formed by movable partitions.

The museum’s inaugural exhibitions include Cold War Spaces, devoted to “public space, private space, Utopian space, secret space, outer space, etcetera. The show, says chief curator Joes Segal, is intended “to highlight different aspects of socialist life” from politicized public space to bunkers in the East Berlin Metro. It includes black and white photos of some choice Soviet-style brutalist architecture.

So what do former residents of the Soviet Union think about this museum? DnA talks to women who grew up in East Germany, and finds the objects trigger nostalgia for the happy aspects of childhood in an oppressive society that they remember nonetheless as secure and safe.

The Wende Museum’s relaunch feels strangely timely, now the US is back in the shadow of the Cold War as a special prosecutor investigates whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to win the 2016 election.

Justin Jampol promises lectures, programs and workshops that will engage the public in dialogue about past and present.

He told DnA, “the museum has a responsibility and a chance to really be a forum for civic engagement around so many of these themes that directly relate to the Cold War era… Open up a newspaper or look online and it’s stories of Russia, North Korea and walls and surveillance and spying. And so these are very Cold War themes but they’re contemporary as well.”