For almost 15 years, The Wende Museum of the Cold War was hidden in the outskirts of Culver City. But now, its unique collection of 100,000 pieces of archives, art, and artifacts has moved to the Armory Building in the center of Culver City.
This former atomic bomb shelter was built in 1949 to house the National Guard. It was a time of anticipation and overwhelming fear of a nuclear disaster as a result of the looming war with the Soviet Union.
Now, almost 70 years later, Cold War and Russians are here at the Wende Museum – and this is good news, as we are all better and smarter as a result of being engaged by its very untraditional examination of post-WWII history and culture. The German word “wende,” meaning “transformation,” or “change,” was chosen by the Founder and Director of the museum, Justinian Jampol.
New, spacious galleries burst at the seams with flags and banners of various Socialist countries and Soviet-era clothing, toys, and games, plus hundreds of propaganda posters and images of Communist leaders, including Lenin and Stalin.
I do remember seeing similar propaganda material while growing up in the Soviet Union, and let me tell you – back then, it was intimidating and a little bit scary. But now, at the new Wende Museum, with its unorthodox juxtaposition of Cold War ephemera, I look at this stockpile of German and Soviet Union spy equipment, “textiles, discarded family scrapbooks, furniture, restaurant menus, mixed tapes, paintings, [and] sculptures” (LA Times), and all that makes me smile and think differently…
Yes, each coin has two sides; the Wende’s exhibitions allow us to learn what life was like on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Of course, there are plenty images of happy peasants and factory workers, smiling and marching toward a bright future.
One of the welcome surprises for visitors is a small exhibition The Russians, with a series of black and white photographs by New York artist Nathan Farb, who went to Siberia in 1977 and made portraits of Soviet citizens in the heartland of Russia. These people… they do command your attention; they come across as characters from Dostoyevsky and Chekhov stories.
And, here is a bronze bust of Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to fly into outer space in 1961. This Soviet achievement forced the United States to escalate the American space program, which ultimately thumbed its nose at the Soviet Union by sending Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.
To fully understand and appreciate the importance of The Wende Museum collection, one must go through the TASCHEN encyclopedic book, Beyond the Wall: Art and Artifacts from the GDR, which, according to Steve Martin, “reveals a highly charged collection of artifacts that can be classified as quirky, human, and curiously emotional.”
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward’s charming Russian accent, click here.