The Wende Museum | Preserving Cold War History

It may not seem as obvious as in other parts of Los Angeles, but Culver City is a vibrant arts and cultural community, with plenty of galleries, museums and other cultural institutions intermixed with hotels, dining establishments, movie studios and retail. One of our favorite places to gather—when gathering was/is appropriate—and to recommend to our guests is the Wende Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Cold War-era artifacts outside of Europe. We had the opportunity to dive deep into the museum’s inspiration, collections, and cultural offerings when we chatted with its founder and chief curator, Justin Jampol. A must-read for all the history buffs out there!

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You are an LA native with an education and a passion for history. What inspired you to open the Wende Museum, which has become the largest collection of Cold War-era artifacts and artwork outside of Europe?

As an outsider—a born and bred Angeleno—and a historian interested in people, the faces behind the these events, I saw value in showcasing the objects, artworks, documents (and so on) that became painful reminders of a former life, and were otherwise sold off, discarded, or destroyed en masse. These materials ranged from the quotidian to the extraordinary—a box of instant coffee to a gilded sword gifted to Eric Honecker by Saddam Hussein. I knew they had an incredible story to tell.

The name of the museum, Wende, is a German word meaning “turning point” or “change.” It’s used to describe the heady period of uncertainty leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the air of possibility that followed it.

 

We fondly remember the museum’s opening party where you launched your Beyond the Wall catalogue in partnership with publishing house Taschen Books. Can you tell us more about this partnership with Benedikt Taschen?

In his blurb for our catalogue Beyond the Wall, published by Taschen Books, Steve Martin described the materials in our East German collection as “quirky, human, and curiously emotional.”  In the same sentence he calls them “highly-charged.” Fully aware that Steve Martin could have written just about anything and I would have loved it, I was struck by how well he’d distilled the objects in our collection and what it was that drew me to them in the first place. The materials Steve Martin was referring to are the materials of a place that no longer exists, the detritus of change on a massive scale.

 

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What can visitors expect to see at the Wende Museum?

On any given day, visitors to the Wende Museum might encounter Culver City community members gathering in the garden for yoga, museum-goers on an exhibitions tour led by our Chief Curator, Joes Segal, or students taking art-making workshops inspired by our current exhibitions.

You’ll also have a clear view of the collection through our Open Storage displays, films playing in our film lab, and I’m sure one or museum staff members carting items across the museum campus as they digitize and catalogue collection items.

If you stick around till evening, or come back after refueling, you might see a free concert by esteemed local musicians as part of our Music at the Wende series, catch a film screening, or a chance to graffiti fabricated pieces of the Berlin Wall with a street artist if you’re a high school student.

The hustle and bustle of the museum is one of the things that I miss the most about life pre Covid-19, but, even amidst pandemics and coups, there has been plenty of productive experimentation, including our newly launched virtual exhibition experience, which gives visitors a chance to explore our collections and current exhibition Transformations: Living Room -> Flea Market -> Museum -> Art, one of my personal all-time favorites.

 

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What is the one question you get asked about the Cold War?

We receive an incredible range of questions on a daily basis, which I think reflects just how multi-layered and diverse the story is. Some people are curious about the Refuseniks—the Russian Jews who sought exit from the USSR—while others want to know more about dissident art and culture in Hungary or the intersection of art and politics in Vietnam. The list goes on.  

The question we always get is “Why a Cold War museum in Southern California?” It’s a rational question with a lengthy answer. My attempt at an elevator pitch: Our building is a Cold War era National Guard Armory built in a neighborhood that was populated by employees of the then booming defense industry. Across the street is the former backlot of MGM Studios, which produced the 1984 Cold War fear film Red Dawn. 

During the Cold War, Culver City, “the Heart of Screenland,” sat squarely at the intersection of mass-media and the military industrial complex. Today it is rapidly becoming another center of industry as well as a center for arts and culture. It’s a place that’s vibrant and fresh and full of history, more than meets the eye. What better place to illuminate the cultural and historical changes of the past in order to inspire positive change in the present? 

 

You are also the host of Travel Channel’s Lost Secrets. Tell us about that series.

Some of the most important materials that have come to the museum over the years have been things that were found under a bed or in a closet—important historical links hiding just below the radar. Lost Secrets was born from the idea that we can unwittingly possess things that contain the key to lost or secret histories. These mysterious materials typically come to us, so it was a blast traveling the world to find them, unlocking mysteries and revealing hidden pasts along the way. Think Antiques Road Show meets Indiana Jones

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What exciting project are you working on next?

We are in the beginning stages of expanding the Wende Museum campus to the west with the development of the Creative Community Center, which will be a mixed-use space for culture, education, and social services, with programming and services provided by multiple community organizations working in partnership. 

It’s long been a dream of ours to expand our engagement and create a holistic alliance of art, education, and public services accessible to all in Culver City and beyond. We’re thrilled to have this opportunity to strengthen our community, and we feel like it couldn’t have come at a better time.


What is your favorite hidden spot in Culver City?

There are so many hidden gems in Culver City, but my favorite spot, if I’m being honest, is the Culver Hotel, which is maybe the opposite of hidden. It’s a landmark building that’s been beautifully restored but has maintained its character by drawing on its rich history. It’s become like a second home over the years, a neighborhood spot and center for the community, both personal and professional. I always bring the museum’s out-of-town guests to The Culver, and my wife and I had our rehearsal dinner there. It’s the Paris to our East Berlin. And the heart of Culver City.     

 

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