WHEN DOES history become history? At what point do everyday things turn into the resonant artifacts of a bygone era? Usually, the shift is glacial, beyond our notice. But sometimes history lurches from era to era like an earthquake ripping open the ground -- an upheaval that lays bare the baseline assumptions and symbols that people live and breathe yet are rarely conscious of.
The fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was one such moment. Right before our eyes, we saw millions of people who for decades were surrounded by the signs, symbols and beliefs of one culture suddenly adopt the signs, symbols and beliefs of another. Communism was not just a system of government; it also was a culture that shaped and colored and decorated the lives of those who lived under it.
Six years ago, 22-year-old UCLA history student Justinian Jampol was in Berlin doing research when he came across some communist-era artifacts he wanted to save and ship home. It struck him that something should be done to prevent more of these relics from disappearing into, well, history.
Two years later, he founded the Wende Museum -- wende is the colloquial German term for the reunification. Today, the museum, which is housed in a business park in Culver City, holds 50,000 artifacts, making it one of the largest private collections and archives of Cold War-era material in the world.
Open to the public only two days a month, the museum is largely geared toward historians. Jampol, now 28 and in the process of writing his dissertation, has created a space where students and scholars can “explore the intricacies and complexities of an extinct culture.”
But don’t expect to find exhibits on Nikita Khrushchev or the Cuban missile crisis. The museum’s collection focuses on the artifacts of everyday communist culture. Jampol says he wants “to return agency to those who lived under the regime” and show how they “manipulated, reproduced and exchanged” the language of communism in their own lives.
His premise is that while most people in communist countries during the Cold War era didn’t believe in the official ideology -- the former head of the East German secret police estimated that no more than a third of the population supported the state -- they couldn’t help but partake in it, in the form of millions of objects, artworks, logos and symbols.
The museum’s wide-ranging collection includes alarm clocks and uniforms, bronze statues and sports trophies. One exhibit features items from the official youth culture of the German Democratic Republic -- East German school workbooks and the awards and certificates that eager children once competed for in party-sponsored organizations.
Another re-creates a drab, orderly Cold War-era East German office, complete with no-nonsense furniture, an old-fashioned adding machine and the ever-present portrait of Secretary-General Erich Honeker. Nearby is a storage closet chock full of embroidered flags that once were proudly hoisted by members of factory and youth brigades, sports clubs and environmental groups.
Even the simplest artifacts make history less abstract, and more: Material culture reflects the values, attitudes, ideas and assumptions of the individuals -- and the society -- that made and used them. A Meissen porcelain plate depicting the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1917 was most likely treasured by a member of the East German elite as a beautiful, high-end tchotchke that commemorated the revolution that created not just the USSR but ultimately the GDR (and his job) as well. A charming and lovingly carved wood statue of Lenin tells a different tale -- about idealism and maybe even true belief.
Seeing the plate and the sculpture stripped of their original context actually makes their possible meanings stand out. And the more you consider those meanings, and the stuff that communism left behind, the more you wonder what history will make of your own tchotchkes, the objects you choose to have around you and why.
I have a favorite object in the Wende Museum, and the fact that I chose it means it says something about me and my culture, as well as the time and place it came from. It’s a larger-than-life porcelain bust of Lenin from Leipzig. Once upon a time, the revolutionary’s sharp beard and penetrating eyes were glazed plain white, but now they’re streaked fluorescent pink and green -- spray-painted by protesters not long before the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989. If I could, I’d take it home and put it on a pedestal.