Lenin on the Beach
A visit to the Wende Museum in LA, the unlikely home to artefacts from the former Eastern Bloc
On the beach, no nudity. Drinking alcohol in public? Prohibited. Jaywalking? Illegal. Until recently, Californians were not even allowed to sit at outdoor cafés with their dogs. Few white people dare enter South Central, where institutional racism sparked the LA riots in 1992. In Beverly Hills, African-Americans can expect to be asked by police what they are doing there. Los Angeles is full of invisible walls; full of rules, prohibitions and borders. All too often, the constitutional freedom Americans like to cite as integral to their self image and identity proves to be nothing but propaganda.
I am all the more surprised, in this city of all places, to see a piece of the Berlin Wall. Or to be precise ten sections of the wall outside the Variety Building on Wilshire Boulevard. I ask myself what this is all about, and discover online that they were placed there on 9 November 2009 on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That evening, the street was even blocked by the sections of the wall – to help people understand what it means to live in a world that really is divided. Reconstructing the atmosphere of East Germany in a place like this, with year-round sunshine and enormous palm trees, strikes me as impossible. But that is precisely the task taken on by Justinian Jampol, who opened his own museum in Culver City: the Wende Museum (Wende, or ‘turnaround’, is the word Germans use for the period of change leading up to and including the fall of the Berlin Wall).
It doesn’t look like much from outside: a grey warehouse surrounded by trees. Only a brightly painted section of the Wall and the word ‘Wende’ in the parking lot tell me I’m in the right place. I walk up to the first floor and find myself facing an array of commemorative plates for the Karl-Marx-Stadt Concrete Slab Factory, the Döbeln Workers’ Festival, and the Ministry of State Security (the Stasi). Above me, just below the low ceiling, hangs a street sign: Bertolt-Brecht Platz. I turn around and there’s a wooden figure of Lenin pointing at me.
A woman approaches, introduces herself as a member of staff, and offers to give me a tour of the exhibition: three rooms and a library with bound volumes of Neues Deutschland, the official newspaper of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany). She shows me oil paintings of Hungarian tractor women and Russian agricultural labourers, busts of Ernst Thälmann and Walter Ulbricht, record covers from East Germany’s Amiga record label, and a locker with sports jackets, pennants and black and white photographs of gymnasts. ‘That’s it,’ she says. ‘That can’t be everything, surely?’ I say.
She smiles, as if expecting this reaction, and leads me into the museum’s heart – a high-ceilinged hall, a maze of racks containing furniture, sculptures, wall sections, magazines, books, border markers, posters, film reels, flags, uniforms, medals and much more – not only from East Germany, but also other former Warsaw Pact countries. Around 100,000 objects from the former Eastern Bloc can be found in this archive, in the extreme west of the capitalist world. Everything is here. All that’s missing is the boss.
A few days later, I meet Justinian Jampol for coffee in Santa Monica. I want to find out what drove the American to open this museum in 2002 when he was just 24 years old. He is tall, blonde and very talkative. He tells me his parents, descendants of Ukrainian Jews who emigrated in the 19th century – his father an attorney for Native Americans, his mother an artist – were ‘real Berkeley hippies from the 1960s’. He tells me about his time in a kibbutz as a teenager, his studies of Russian history and language in Los Angeles and Oxford, and his period of researching and collecting GDR memorabilia in Berlin in the early 2000s.
If the USA and the GDR have one thing in common perhaps it’s the importance of national symbols for the self-assurance and identity-formation of a young, artificially created society. Jampol’s academic work deals with precisely this point: for his dissertation Swords, Doves, and Flags – Evolution of Political Iconography and Cultural Meaning in the GDR, 1949–89, he found out that each of the former East Germans he spoke to had created a personal archive as a kind of proof of their own life history. Jampol wanted to bring these scattered archives together in one place and make them accessible to the public. He paid for the first objects using money inherited from his grandfather. Then he rented warehouse space in Los Angeles, packed everything into containers and had them shipped across the Atlantic. Once the museum had opened and his initial funds had run out, he applied for funding and received 2.6 million dollars from Arcadia, a foundation devoted to preserving cultural heritage. This accolade, says Jampol, led to his activities becoming more professional. Since then, he has been collecting systematically and is able to employ more than half a dozen staff at the museum, which he views primarily as a research institute.
Unlike the office responsible for extant Stasi documents in Germany, the Wende Museum is not an institution that gives its users access to the existing archive. And unlike the Berlin Wall Museum at the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, it does not focus exclusively on escape attempts. Taking a broader approach, the Wende Museum is a collection with no beginning or end, one that is growing and expanding. Which is also why it has no simple narrative, aiming instead to preserve completely the culture of an era (the Cold War) and of a region (the Eastern Bloc), safeguarding, sorting and showing material relating to victims and perpetrators in equal measure. The result has more to do with archaeology than with any political or personal appraisal; it is free of moral considerations.
Clearly, an uninvolved biographical background and a distance of 9,300 kilometres sharpen one’s eye for the things of everyday life. Whereas in Berlin, the remnants of East Germany are gradually disappearing – despite David Hasselhoff flying in to save them – in Los Angeles they are being installed and conserved. This reflects the partnership between the two cities, exchanging things they have or lack: history on the one hand, glamour on the other. The past and the present are always in motion, just like the Wende Museum. Soon, Jampol and his staff will be moving to larger, more appropriate premises: the former National Guard Armory built in 1949, the year when the two German states were founded and Europe’s division became manifest.
In November, to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, a book on the Wende Museum and its artefacts will be published by Taschen. And in collaboration with the Berlin artist Christof Zwiener, the gatehouse of the official East German news agency (Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst) will be permanently installed in Los Angeles as a vitrine with artworks by Friedrich Kunath, Sonya Schönberger and Bernd Trasberger. While Jampol and I talk, the gatehouse is still on its way across the ocean, floating between worlds, crossing national borders. The German Democratic Republic on the move.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Jan Brandt is a writer and journalist living in Berlin. He spent July to September 2014 in Los Angeles as a fellow of the Villa Aurora. His latest novel Tod in Turin (Death in Turin) will be published by DuMont in March 2015.
First published in Issue 17