When a Soviet-controlled regime falls apart, what happens to all of its stuff? It ends up in L.A. apparently.
For 40 years, East Germany remained closely veiled in secrecy and tightly monitored government propaganda. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, it was decided that the GDR’s trace be altered as swiftly as possible (monuments, street names, and the like). The past tends to make people uncomfortable (as the Southland’s own self-imposed fantasies can attest to). Which leads to rather haphazard methods of properly documenting culturally significant items. In steps 25-year old Oxford grad student Justinian Jampol in 2002.
Jampol, frustrated with the lack of research source material at the official East German archive in Berlin, decided to go out and find the most precious relics of the Cold War era before they were lost and forgotten in people’s basements, flea markets, and fall-out shelters. All of this “junk” was not yet recognized as historical, merely politically charged reminders of a very recent past. People really weren’t sure what to do with this stuff, and often donating it to a European museum was risky in a still very divided and sensitive environment.
And thus, the Wende Museum was born, in Jampol’s hometown L.A., housing one of the world’s largest collections of Eastern Bloc artifacts, including Checkpoint Charlie uniforms, wall fragments, consumer products, Stasi spy equipment, and a lot of Lenin heads—with new boxes of memorabilia still arriving every week.
When I visited the Wende last Friday, I thought it was truly bizarre that of all the places to put these orphaned artifacts, Culver City was chosen. Were there even that many Germans in L.A.? (Not really) But then maybe this lack of a history gives it a greater freedom in allowing real discussions about the past and present. People are more open to learning about a past that is not their own. And America really does have a history of presenting fresh starts and anonymity. Los Angeles offered a neutral platform to an international audience about an uncomfortably fresh swatch of history. This city, famous for reinventing itself, can’t yet talk about its own history, but it will offer a table to other areas trying to figure out their own. I marvel at L.A. for this reason. It is such a haphazard, fragmented, mixed-up place that is just crazy enough to allow for some sane global discussion.