You’d never know it in passing, but hidden at the back of a nondescript office park in Culver City, California, lies a veritable treasure trove of design objects and graphic ephemera from modern European history, specifically the Cold War era. So how—or more importantly why—does a collection of over 100,000 artifacts and archives from the former German Democratic Republic and other Eastern Bloc countries end up in Los Angeles?
The items were primarily acquired through a grassroots effort led by native Angelino Justinian Jampol, founder and executive director of the Wende Museum. Established in 2002, The Wende, (pronounced venda) is named after the German word for “turning point” or “change” that has come to be associated with the period directly before and after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. As a history student focusing on Eastern Bloc material culture at UCLA and later Oxford University, Jampol recognized the need to preserve art and artifacts from the Cold War after discovering that many European countries were limiting access to, and even destroying work from the era.
Chief curator for the museum, Joes Segal says, “In the 1990s, there was a widespread belief in reunified Germany that East German culture, as the supposed product of a socialist totalitarian regime, had no place in a democratic society, and was, therefore, to be removed from public life. Strangely this clean sweep included items from everyday life and even countercultural expressions. The Wende Museum recognized the need to safeguard these materials for future access and research.”
Segal says that even though it’s been almost 30 years since the wall came down, these artifacts are still at risk in places like Hungary and other former Eastern Bloc countries. “Nowadays,” he explains, “populist right-wing governments throw away materials from the socialist Cold War period as the products of an imposed culture.” The Wende asserts in its mission statement that the museum’s geographic location in America, “provides independence and critical distance from current political debates in Europe, and also facilitates the questioning of preconceived ideas about our past and present.”
However, given the current political climate between the U.S. and Russia, and Europe in general, Segal posits the question that we are experiencing a new, if not continued Cold War. “One of the main ideas of our museum is to open up different perspectives in history to be better able to abstract from the here and now. In that sense, our location remains relevant.”
While our understanding of the Cold War is often dominated by static dates and facts in history books, or by Hollywood’s long line of cloak and dagger thrillers and pulpy spy fantasies like the recent Atomic Blonde, the Wende provides a rare view into the lived experience of people behind the Iron Curtain through its everyday objects.
Amanda Roth, collections & curatorial associate for the Wende, says their collection ranges from “military relics to mid-century ceramics, to special collections of paper archives, commemorative textiles, posters, and film. One of the most prevalent misconceptions about the Cold War period is that life was just drab and gray. There are so many examples from our collection—especially colorful plastic housewares—that challenge this assumption.”
The Wende’s latest exhibition, Dinner Party Politics, which just came to a close, explored “the different ways food items and related products communicated and expressed state priorities, social expectations, and individual desires.” On display are dozens of bright-hued menus, recipe books, advertisements, even children’s toys and board games, which are all examined from multiple perspectives like ideology, agency, and gender.
Many of the household items and ads on display reinforce traditional gender roles despite the theoretical notion that a socialist society should eliminate the gender divide. While women were expected to join the workforce like their male counterparts, they still maintained 80% of domestic responsibilities, creating a “double burden” that the state attempted to alleviate through pre-packaged foods and specialty cooking appliances.
One poster depicts a woman with six arms outstretched like a windmill, each representing the daily obligations of a typical Soviet woman, and includes the time required to complete each duty: one hour for laundry, another for cleaning, three hours for cooking, nine hours for working, one and a half hours for grocery shopping, and 17 minutes for spending with her children.
For those who can’t make the trip to Culver City to see these items in person, the Wende’s collection is documented in Jampol’s massive book Beyond the Wall: Art and Artifacts from the GDR. The book, published by Taschen, includes interactive elements via an augmented reality app, and comes with a 56-page facsimile of a GDR family scrapbook documenting their real and imagined travels both in East Germany and across the border. Beyond the Wall is easily navigated, with artifacts organized by color-coded dividers denoting categories that range from politics and education to entertainment and recreation.
A highlight of the book is the section dedicated to Das Magazin, “one of the standout successes of East German publishing.” The monthly publication was known for illustrator Werner Klemke’s “sprightly covers, and combined escapist illustrations, nude photographs, travel writing, short stories, and fashion writing to create a vision of what life in the East might be like: cultured, leisurely, and fun.”
Demand for the limited-run publication significantly outpaced supply, and each copy of the magazine was read by an average of six people, either through the exchange of friends or from under-the-counter sales. Remarkably, Das Magazin survived Germany’s reunification and is still in print today.
The whimsical aesthetic of Das Magazin contradicts assumptions of what state-approved design in the GDR should look like, and for graphic designers working in state-sponsored studios, there was a certain level of stylistic leniency from the government. “In most Eastern Bloc countries, the guidelines for graphic design were usually less strict than for the fine arts,” says Segal, “and you see more experiments and modernist influences here, especially after Stalin’s death in 1953. Graphic design studios in the Soviet Union, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, were also instrumental in visualizing utopian ideas.”
Segal explains that subversive posters and prints were often created by artists and designers covertly while working on state commissions. “Samizdat,” or underground publications were distributed clandestinely from person to person and supported dissident activities and news that would have been otherwise banned.
The Wende’s extensive Soviet Hippie Collection includes samizdat whose embrace of alternative utopias, Western rock music and the peace movement, were indicators that the Iron Curtain was not only “far more porous than its architects intended,” they also document “the resilience of the human spirit and explore the ways that official ideology was subverted, rejected, and given new meaning in the private sphere.”
The Wende is closed until November as they prepare to leave the office park building and start construction on a larger space nearby. The new location, which was made available to the Wende by the City of Culver City as a long-term 75-year lease, has a Cold War legacy of its own—the former National Guard Armory built in the late 1940s comes complete with two small nuclear fallout shelters.
“The Armory offers the ideal backdrop for a Cold war-related museum,” says Segal. “In a sense, it is a paradox of history that a building that was supposed to play a part in preparing for the big clash with the Cold War enemy will now store, conserve and showcase the culture and daily life of that former enemy for the American public.”