November 21, 2017

Photo Essay: Upon the Grand Reopening of LA's Cold War Museum

I don't think a museum like the Wende would be able to exist on such a large scale in the LA area if its lease didn't cost a mere $1 per year.

That may be the biggest fiscal advantage of relocating our local "Cold War Museum" to the former National Guard Armory in Culver City...

...but there's also the exciting prospect of reactivating an abandoned but historic building and providing a more suitable spatial context for its collection than the small business park it was in before.

Of course, the Wende has such a large collection of former Eastern Bloc artifacts that it can't put them all on display at any one time in the new space...

...but from a curatorial perspective, the museum can now show a lot more all at once and be more strategic about its themed exhibitions.

After all, it's not all bronze-cast busts of Lenin (although there are a lot of those).

It's not even all Stalin.

In fact, upon its grand opening, the Wende displayed an entire tribute to the Soviet-era space industry, including an acknowledgment of Laika, the hero canine space cadet who became the first animal to orbit the Earth (and perished as a result).

Some of the artifacts are a bit more fanciful...

...and yet terrifying nevertheless.

Whether of East German, Russian, Hungarian, or Latvian origins, every artifact carries a certain gravitas—even the childhood toys.

And while the Soviet regime generally suppressed the fine arts, there were always exceptions—especially for those items that might benefit the state, like diplomatic gifts and propagandized glassware.

I can only imagine the kind of state-sanctioned programming that Eastern Bloc citizens were allowed to listen to on their radios...

...and what kind of contraband recordings or pirate broadcasts might've made their way through these speakers...

...though, given the Soviets' penchant for surveillance, it's doubtful that any of it would have gone undetected.

Was not every phone wiretapped?

Could any radio wave be trusted?

Weren't home electronics of the Cold War Era just another version of Russian spy equipment? (And are they any different now?)

Of course, there's no shortage of actual, unapologetic spy equipment in the Wende's arsenal, whether it's for recording...

...relaying covert messages and other top-secret communiqués (a.k.a. Kommuniques, коммюнике)...

...or just listening.

And perhaps the best indication of how advanced the Eastern Bloc countries were in their efforts to control the activities and movements of its people is the early (albeit analog) method of facial recognition that they developed and used at Checkpoint Charlie, the most heavily utilized access point along the Berlin Wall between East and West Germany.

It was a culture where people were presumed guilty and perhaps never given the opportunity to prove their innocence. Any opinion or criticism could get you deemed an "enemy of the state."

The Cold War officially ended in 1991, but it's not like the geopolitical tension has gone away. Communism is still alive and well in Cuba, China, North Korea, and Russia—though its activities may have gone a bit more underground than anyone realizes.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin would like nothing better than for the Soviet Union to rebuild and for Russia to reclaim the lands it lost to independence, like Ukraine.

It makes you wonder how long a historical institution like The Wende Museum will be able to rely solely on the events of the past, especially if we find ourselves facing a new Cold War.

That is, if we haven't already.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Southern California's Repository of Eastern Bloc Artifacts, Under Construction
Elegy For Those Who Won't Stay Quiet

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