November 10, 2017

Photo Essay: Southern California's Repository of Eastern Bloc Artifacts, Under Construction

You wouldn't think there'd be much in the way of resources to research the Eastern Bloc in Southern California, but of course our country's western shores were incredibly involved in protecting the homeland during the Cold War—as evidenced by our Nike missile sites, air raid sirens, and battleships that you can still see here today.

And after now having traveled to three countries that were intimately involved in Communism and the Soviet regime—Hungary, Cuba, and most recently Ukraine—I'm particularly excited for our own local "Cold War Museum" to reopen in its new location in Culver City.

The Wende Museum was formerly tucked away in an office park next to Holy Cross Cemetery. It would be pretty difficult to find if you weren't actively looking for it (and even if you were).

But on November 18, 2017, the Wende will celebrate its grand opening in its new location—the former National Guard Armory on Culver Boulevard, right next to Veterans Memorial Park.

It's so exciting that the current mayor of Berlin (a 50-year sister city to Los Angeles) came to have a look.

And that meant some of us also got to take a peek inside at the work-in-progress.

Built in 1949, the National Guard vacated the armory in 2012. At that point, the Wende Museum was just 10 years old and had already outgrown its gallery space and storage and was looking for a new home, located somewhere more central and more historically aligned with the museum's mission.

Not to mention the fact that the new space is more than double the size of its former location.

And so, we're just about a week away from the completion of this museum's own "wende"—which refers not only to its own transformation (or, from the German word, "turning point," as with the fall of the Berlin Wall) but also its adaptive reuse of a derelict building.

Of course, ironically that required the construction of some walls in the new space—which was the only way to open this cultural and historical institution to even more people.

And that's important, since the Wende is the only museum of its kind in the U.S.

And while you might stumble upon an artifact or two from the time when the East and West were kept forcibly separate... can be difficult to understand what they mean in the context of it all without someone to explain it to you.

Historically, the Wende has curated its enormous collection (of over 100,000 books, photographs, paintings, textiles, furniture, ephemera, and more) in thematic exhibitions...

...focusing on anything from dining in and dining out... the role of women, when "equality" meant doing double duty both in the workforce and in the home.

There's even a pretty rad collection of Communist-era spy equipment, radios, and other electronics.

Of course, by its nature and its name, the museum veers away from current Communist republics like China and Cuba. Those locales will become much more interesting from a historical perspective when they each experience their own wende.

So, instead, you'll find a lot of statues and busts of Lenin with a number of different geographic origins (each having their own nuanced design characteristics, like some with a particularly cartoonish and villainous pointy chin).

And, of course, pieces of the Berlin Wall. The Wende currently displays one section (painted by French street artist Thierry Noir) at its former location that will move to the new one.

But it also owns and has installed 10 other segments of the wall across from LACMA at 5900 Wilshire Boulevard, all part of the largest stretch of the original wall that you'll find anywhere outside of Germany.

Stay tuned for dispatches from the grand opening celebration on November 18, 2017.

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