The New Wende Museum
Feature by Willard Manus

Congratulations to The Wende Museum, which recently moved into its new home, a former National Guard armory in Culver City.

After having been confined for fifteen years in a nearby office building, the Wende (German for change, turning point) now has room to display nearly all of its cultural and political objects, personal histories and documentary materials from Cold War-era Eastern Europe. The modern, sun-filled building is open six days a week to the public, which can enter free of charge.

The museum is the brainchild of Justinian Jampol, who began collecting Cold War artifacts when he was a student at Oxford College as a corollary to his doctoral thesis on the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Slowly over the years he began to expand his collection, thanks to grants and donations. Then, with the help of the British-based Arcadia Fund, he was able to open a museum and turn his hobby into an institution.

The morning I spent there took me back three decades to the days of The Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Sputnik, the propaganda war between East and West. Although many of the artifacts on display had a grim history, such as surveillance equipment from East Germany and the USSR, or the photos from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, there is a light-hearted side to the exhibits as well. There are toys and games, radios and record-players, animated and science-fiction films, even a graffiti-covered bust of Stalin.

There is also a surprising side to many of the paintings on its walls. In contrast to the state-approved socialist-realism of, say, “The Hero of Soviet Labor, 1957," a portrait by Sepodovnikov, there are honest, unsentimental depictions of workers under communism, such as “Building the Subway” by the Hungarian Bela Kontuly. Neither is war glorified or falsified in Yuri Yegorov’s 1960 dark, brooding and bitter, “Soldier’s Fire.”

The Wende’s collection of books from East Germany and the Soviet Union is equally impressive. The museum’s shelves are packed with some eight thousand volumes, many of them by world-class authors like Gorki, Brecht, Shaw and Neruda. The books are not circulated but can be read on the premises.

In 2012 Taschen released an 800-page coffee-table book based on the museum’s collection. It shows in profusion what the museum has to offer, but as impressive as the book is, there is nothing like standing in front of a chunk of The Wall or coming face to face with a portrait of Walter Ubrecht, general secretary of the E. German unity party, a politician who traveled widely and was given gifts by the leaders of Ethiopia, Philippines, Syria–-including a gilded sword from Saddam Hussein.

(10808 Culver Blvd, Culver City, CA 90230.