The Wende was the turning point. The whipping away of the Iron Curtain. After a wall falls, the tendency to push the rubble into the sea can be overwhelming.
The past is junk.
We keep the grand monuments and the recognizable symbols as warnings. But there’s a lost story in the stuff that gets thrown out. Commercial products designed in isolation. Of advertising. Of living. Of how people interacted. Moved around. Got by. A latent map of oppression and struggle, hidden in the open of the everyday.
A clean slate is an understandable desire. Germans, of course, know what it is to grapple with what came before. Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the name they give to the shadow that loomed over the second half of the last century—“coming to terms with the past.” It’s not just that keeping so many reminders of recent history is difficult or unrewarding work. It can hurt. So it is an anonymous office building in the backstreets of Culver City, Los Angeles, that became the unlikely home of one of the largest collections of Cold War artifacts in the world, The Wende Museum.
In his introduction to Taschen’s catalogue of his museum, director Justinian Jampol quotes Brecht’s famous condemnation of Los Angeles as a city without a past, “from nowhere, and nowhere bound.” But, he argues, it’s the city’s ahistorical nature, and its distance from the psychological and political burdens of Europe, that give the artifacts new, nostalgia-free context, allowing the connections and the maps to emerge.
When we visit the museum, we’re fascinated by all of it. Paintings with no-longer-favorable-to-the-regime figures smudged out. Instruction books from a checkpoint supervisor providing a self-initiated primer in primitive facial recognition. Old magazines. Bus tickets. Children’s toys. Uniforms. The lower store rooms are packed, literally, to the rafters, and you can feel so much in there: a strange mix of pain and creative energy, just bursting to get out.
But what stuck with us long after we left? Plates! All of these exquisite and often hand-painted commemorative creations, hung on the main museum’s wall for a temporary exhibit, told a story we couldn’t quite wrap words around. The Museum has thousands of them. Each one a time capsule.
The Wende Museum’s East German collection is meticulously, almost overwhelmingly catalogued in Beyond The Wall, a beautiful coffee table book for very sturdy coffee tables, published by Taschen.
The Wende Museum’s visiting hours and location are at wendemuseum.org.
Thanks to Chief Curator Joes Segal for his guidance and help with this piece.