Exhibit Review, June 2007

 

The Wende Museum : A Museum and Archive of the Cold War, www.wendemuseum.org

Reviewed for H-German by Benita Blessing, Ohio University

There’s a New Museum in Town

 

During the last few months I had been hearing rumors about a new museum on East German history--something about someone having collected items that would otherwise have been discarded, and something about Great Britain. I pictured a dusty old room complete with sherry on the table and a few random GDR knick-knacks in some damp apartment near London, and promptly forgot all about it. Then this past March at the “Between Past and Future: East Germany Before and After 1989” conference. [1] Justinian Jampol, the director of the Wende Museum (as it turned out to be called) presented the museum’s mission to the participants. He passed out brochures and gladly talked to anyone about research, emphasizing that the museum’s role is to be a resource for historians working on the former GDR, Eastern Europe and the USSR. Jampol explained that in addition to displays, the Wende Museum also has an archive with a large collection of artifacts related to just about any topic one could think of related to life in Warsaw Pact socialist countries. The cool picture on the museum’s pamphlet of Lenin’s bust, re-painted post-1989 with pastel colors, got my attention, and when I found out that the Wende Museum was in Los Angeles (well, Culver City) I really became intrigued.

 

The museum hosts the world’s largest collection of socialist flags and banners--5,000 banners (2,000 handmade) represent mass organizations, youth societies and even bird-watching groups. News of this trove clinched it for me: I decided that I would make visiting the museum a priority for the next year. When Jampol asked me about my next project (DEFA children’s film), he mentioned a collection of educational films for classrooms they had recently acquired that I might be interested in. It all sounded too good to be true. So I booked a flight and hotel for an extended weekend in Culver City, thinking I could always do some sight-seeing if the museum turned out to be a damp, dark place stuffed with knick-knacks, after all.

The Wende Museum is not the kind of place one strolls by and goes in to on a whim--because it is not in any place one would be strolling. One needs a car, a good map, and a bit of faith. The museum is not more than ten minutes from the LAX airport; as I pulled into the parking lot of a very modern-looking building without easy-to-spot signage, I had a moment of panic that I was in the wrong neighborhood. But then I saw a dozen parking slots marked “Wende” and spotted the side-door entrance beside the inevitable and yet reassuring piece of the Wall (2.6 tons of Thierry Noir artwork) and figured I was in the right place. I meckered a bit about the “famous” Berlin Wall artwork and thought how I would have preferred to see a piece of the wall painted by some unknown person--but then, I reflected, Noir really was part of a group of Wall Artists and that, too, was a funky and fascinating part of GDR history. Besides, it really is a nice segment of the Wall as far as that goes.

 

This sort of reflection and interaction turned out to be a foreshadowing of my visit. Never have I been in a museum where I scribbled more notes and questions to myself about what I was looking at, stared at exhibits while arguing with myself about what they meant (I tried to use my internal voice but was just as often talking to myself out loud), or had to force myself just to walk quickly rather than run back and forth between rooms to compare something back there with this object here. The Wende Museum is a place that asks questions and encourages the visitor to ask questions. I found no imposing and authoritative meter-high signs informing us wie es eigentlich gewesen and telling us how to interpret the things on display; there were no recreations of “The Life of The Average Socialist.” Rather, the museum offers up a wealth of objects--from the clearly political (busts of Lenin) to the seemingly mundane (an ashtray)--and gives visitors lots of space to look and see and ruminate. The pared-down exhibit design (the exhibitors favor an almost minimalist approach to presentation, compared with many museums’ crowded feel) invites the visitor to think about what these pieces of culture tell us.

 

The American Association of Museums’ Code of Ethics states that “[m]useums make their unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world.” [2] Frankly, I have always been a bit bored by the “interpreting” part of museum visits, which tend toward a sweeping grand narrative with an equally grand message. Such “interpretation” quickly turns one-dimensional, didactic and moralistic, placing the visitor in the role of passive learner, and allows little room for critical analysis. The rows upon rows of objects can thus either demonstrate what a glorious (or progressive, or quaint, or unfairly overlooked) culture “x” was, based on its artifacts on display, or else show how the culture was clearly misguided, evil, or somehow wrong, also proven by overwhelming mountains of items. Such a museum, with the good intention of teaching visitors about the world, has strayed from informing to instructing. In fact, I have to admit that, despite having lived blocks away from some of the most famous museums in the world, I have rarely found a museum I liked enough to spend very much time in or even to revisit. There have been exceptions, and they are ones I return to again and again--the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth; the Picasso Museum in Paris; the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto; the Uffizi’s Botticelli room--which has refreshingly little to say about the meaning of it all (the latter only if I close my eyes and race through the gauntlet of statues that proudly announce that the Uffizi owns all of them. Italy, or at least Tuscany, this display of statues yells out, has still got it, and “it” is a hopeful equation of art with power). Add now to my “exceptions list” the Wende Museum. I am tempted to refer to the museum’s style as anti-museal, so innovative and effective is its lay-out, blurring and fusing the lines between museum and archive, rethinking the relationship between space and exhibits.

 

Upon entering the museum, I was treated to the in-progress exhibit of the “Facing The Wall” room. Yes, I know, many of us have been to Checkpoint Charlie, seen film footage celebrating the success of the antifascist wall of protection and the protest demonstrations on the western side, and by now have memorized at least a dozen ways East Germans attempted to escape to the West. But this is not your father’s Checkpoint Charlie. It is “The Berlin Wall” extreme--including an East German border guard’s scrapbooks, a poster for facial recognition tests (on the left is photo A; is photo B the same person? … I was dying for the answer sheet) and the guard’s own private film footage of the August 13, 1986, twentieth anniversary of the building of the Wall. No amount of coursework or museum visits or even the experience of having lived through a divided Germany can adequately prepare a visitor for this glimpse at the inside of a border guard’s locker. The vaguely sexual yet rather harmless cartoons about men and women’s relationships pasted to the inside of the locker door are difficult to reconcile with very idea of the Wall and its protectors. This locker showed very effectively that the “people’s state” had people in it, and it is difficult to make any sort of generalizations about them and their lives. This display is thus at once part of a general history of the Wall and a rare moment of insight into the life of one of the people who worked there. The same person who can easily symbolize a regime’s shoot-to-kill policy is also a disconcerting example of just another guy who puts up girlie cartoons that made him laugh. His personal photo album, next to the locker, is full of funny, touching photos of him and his friends fooling around, with captions that mock their silly antics. These photos, this locker, this man, were all part of the political and everyday history of the GDR, but in relation to one another, they are not illustrative of anyone thing or concept that can easily be termed “the Wall.” The locker is a very good argument against employing metonymy in historical analysis--the object cannot really stand for its associated whole. Whether you identify yourself as a “lumper” or a “splitter,” you’ll appreciate the reminder provided in this first exhibit of the Wende Museum that, for all historians, nothing is ever only as it appears.

 

Upstairs, one enters a large room with benches from the SED Central Committee communist party meetings. It is hard not to look at the benches and wonder who sat where, what they talked about, whose fate was decided, or what tales they shared. Around the room are a few select paintings and icons of “socialist art”--which turned out to be much more varied and complex than I had previously understood, an admission of which I am more than a bit ashamed. Viktor Pavlov’s Evening Walk of the Ginger Bitch (Russia, 1989) challenged my ideas about any clear dichotomy between “official” and “underground” by recasting social-political motifs (such as the dimming red stars on the canvas’s night sky), thereby mocking and inverting the meaning of a prevalent, shared iconography. Beyond that, the painting felt familiar, and it was something I admired to the point of fantasizing about it hanging in my living room. I realized it reminded me of Chagall, and this connection sent me whirling off on a speculation about the nature of art and the place of “official” and “underground” art in a larger narrative of art history. In this sense, the Wende Museum has responded to a logical extension of Pierre Bourdieu’s critique of museums as places that reinforce class distinctions:[3] museum displays themselves authoritatively categorize art according to criteria that the museum visitor has little opportunity to question, let alone recognize. No such clear divisions are here. I left this exhibit wondering how much of what I thought I understood about Cold War Europe, its politics or art, was accurate, or even relevant.

 

This sort of questioning and reframing continued in my discussions with the director of the museum. Entering the reading room--a well-stocked library with books that I believed lost to the rubbish heaps of post-1989 self-purgings--I noticed a fairly well-known painting by Alexei Pavlovitch Soldovnikov, “The Divorce” ( USSR, 1955). I sat down at the reading table and the director joined me, noticing my interest in the painting. Within minutes we were arguing about the meaning of the images--was the artist critical of his main subject, the modern man asking for the divorce? Or was the traditionally-clad (un-modern) wife the true culprit, crying helplessly while her young, vibrantly clothed (modern) daughter was forced to comfort her? The conversation was the stuff of art history classes, heady in its possibilities of multiple interpretations--questions of artistic intent and social context. Not once did I think to categorize the painting blindly as “socialist art,” part of a state that either accepted or did not accept artists’ interpretations. Here was a moment of uncertainty, speculation, a search for evidence--a delightful exercise in interrogating a source, a process that I constantly remind my students to engage in but too often have forgotten to partake of myself.

 

Part of the Wende Musem’s mission involves working with interns who actively contribute to the museum’s activities, such as setting up cultural artifacts from the collections for thematic exhibits. It is tempting to call these exhibits “re-creations,” and in one sense they are--photographs from the period in question help suggest logical placement of objects, such as where to place desks or flower vases in an office scene. But these exhibits, following the museum’s trope of questioning rather than telling, do not inform the viewer how things were, but rather show how people who once used these items might have arranged them. The objective is thus not one of replicating the past, but interacting with it. Why is this distinction important? Because not one of the exhibits claims authority. This atmosphere of suggestion encourages more than a quick, passing glance; indeed, it almost forces the viewer to stop and wonder.

 

One exhibit I keep returning back to mentally: a girl’s sports locker, filled with a female athlete’s things. On the left are uniforms from the Soviet Union; on the right, jerseys and training pants from the GDR. It took me several minutes to decide what was making me stare so long at the exhibit--was it the sports gear, or perhaps the newspaper clippings and photos of famous Eastern European athletes pasted on the inside of the locker doors? Certainly the arrangement of the clippings--some torn out of a newspaper and pasted rather haphazardly alongside award ribbons and medals--made me smile at the thought of a girl decorating a locker to make it her own. And, of course, staring at some of the faces in the newspaper clippings, I was reminded of the political stakes involved in creating world-class athletes for Soviet bloc countries, harkening in a disturbing era of state-sponsored drug abuse. But no--it was the hairdryer, shampoo and soap on the top right shelf that had got my attention, and stepping closer to look at them plunged me in to a surreal Alice-tumbling-down-the-rabbit-hole dizzying moment of seeing items I had seen countless times before--but this time in actual relationship to each other. This experience was not one that George Mosse once warned against. Lecturing to a seminar at Madison about the Holocaust Museum, he cautioned against creating museum exhibits that so closely seemed to resemble reality that visitors believed they had actually, in that instance, experienced what it was like to have survived the Holocaust. This sports exhibit did not make me feel that I had once been an East German athlete, or that I even knew this imaginary girl. Instead, I began to make new connections between historical materials that helped me better understand their place in society. On the surface, it might not be much of a revelation to realize that an East German girl would keep a hair dryer and shampoo handy to clean up after a work-out. But it is exactly this sort of recognition that deserves our attention, whether as career historians or casual museum-goers. Sports in Eastern Europe appear over and over again in the scholarship and popular culture as a highly politicized activity--and indeed that interpretation is accurate. But the simple placement of a hair-dryer next to an official GDR (sports) uniform turns a very political object (a jacket with the GDR emblem) in to an item that also belonged to the everyday. I suspect that someone interested in the state of GDR technology, here represented by a hair-dryer, would have a similar reaction--the hair-dryer had an everyday function that would have ranged from the ordinary and practical (don’t go out with wet hair or you’ll catch your death of cold) to the vain and consumerist (the latest hairstyle calls for more than letting one’s hair dry naturally). It was the kind of lesson about politics and culture and everyday life in the GDR that was unsettling in all the right ways. I walked away from the museum exhibits with more questions than answers, and that frame of mind, anti-museal though this conclusion might be, is the best kind of starting point for doing history.

The Wende Museum, as its subtitle on its homepage notes, is also an archive. There is something here for everyone. Military history? Here are battle plans for an attack on West Berlin. Or how about tricked-out uniforms (purple velvety fur is hand-sewn inside the sleeves of a Soviet military coat from the 1960s so that, when the cuffs are turned up, there really is something about a man in a uniform). Diplomatic history? We find the wooden bas-relief scenes of peasants working in the fields that the Vietnamese Communist Party gave Erich Honecker; Honecker also received a beautiful mother-of-pearl cigarette case from Yassir Arafat. Or, perhaps you are thinking, as I began to, that such items might also belong to some other subfield of history--cultural, or maybe gender. Here, too, the collection pushed me to think more broadly about my work--an experience I seldom have in archives, where the archivist and I are usually trying to narrow down what I am really interested in so as no-one’s time is wasted tracking down or looking at the wrong box. I am toying with the idea that, with such an archive design, there might not be a wrong box. If ever there is a heaven for archives and historians who use them, it looks like this one. Endless flat files of posters for any and every occasion; children’s toys, cookbooks, bolts of fabric, sewing patterns, a varied collection of “socialist” paintings (that again made me realize how very limited and limiting my understanding of socialist art has been), plastics, erotica and pornography, sewing machines, radios, music, movie star photos--you name it. If it is not yet at the museum, it is likely on its way from yet another de-accessioned archive in a former socialist country; otherwise, Jampol or one of the other staff members will at least try to think of someone who might be able to help you find it elsewhere. And soon scholars will even be able to use an oral history repository there. With so many artifacts in an exhibition space meant to be used and interacted with, it might be time to come up with a new term for this sort of hybrid museum-archive.

 

But wait, there is more. As if 5,000 square feet of archive and off-site storage space, 2,000 square feet of exhibition space, and another 2,000 square feet of storage in Berlin were not enough to make this place an impressive contribution to scholarly and public understanding of Cold War history, the museum also sponsors an educational outreach program. One of the staff’s activities has been to discuss the meaning of the Berlin Wall to students in and around Los Angeles. Aside from a history lesson about the division of Germany, classes get to talk about other kinds of walls and, finally, paint one of their own “wall segments.” This will be a traveling exhibit (including the Noir piece) that will be tour throughout the United States. I am personally sympathetic to such projects, but many scholars will understandably be worried that an urban girl who paints her “wall” with scenes of guns and a maternal figure crying blood has not really learned about German history. Does the boy from an across-town upper-class neighborhood who decorated his wall with pleas to save the planet know much more about divided Berlin? Maybe not. But I think that is okay, and not really the point anyway. Encouraging young people to think about their societies and the way they live and the way they want to live is an admirable and important goal of a museum--any museum. And the collection of these wall segments in and of themselves questions the viewer about the role of history and how and why we teach it. I do not have any answers for those difficult questions, only more questions. But then, as I learned from my visit to the Wende Museum, that is the point, and that is where history actually begins.

 

 

Notes

[1]. “Between Past and Future: East Germany Before and After 1989,” Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, March 30-31, 2007.

[2]. American Association Museum, “Code of Ethics,” http://www.aam-us.org/museumresources/ethics/coe.cfm, accessed June 6, 2007.

[3]. Cf. Pierre Bourdieu, Alain Darbel, Dominique Schanpper, Caroline Beattie, and N. Merriman , The Love of Art: European Art Museums and Their Public (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995) and Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[4]. Cf. Steven Ungerleider, Faust’s Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine ( New York: Thomas Dunne, 2001).

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