9400 Culver Boulevard
Culver City, C.A.
The Tab(1) Manhattan
(3) gin and tonics
(1) ginger ale
$68.92 + tip
I can’t help it. Thanks to the Wende Museum, I’ll have an even harder time throwing stuff away. Whose bright idea was it to erase almost every trace of the Berlin Wall, anyway? “Sometimes it’s those who directly experienced something who are the last to recognize the historical significance of it,” says Justinian Jampol, 33-year-old historian and founder of the Wende Museum, one of the more peculiar and delightful institutions of Los Angeles.
You wouldn’t expect Southern California to be home to one of the world’s largest repositories of Cold War artifacts from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but that’s what Jampol and his museum have created. Wende is German for “turning point,” and it refers to the period when East Germany threw off Communist rule and reunited with the West.
Jampol often meets people at the bar in the Culver Hotel, a six-story 1920s landmark that anchors the central strip of Culver City. The hotel is just a few miles north of the Wende, and it’s easy to talk there. We’re seated in armchairs and surrounded by wood paneling, terrazzo floors, and tacky Art Deco furniture.
Jampol views L.A. as an ideal home for his project. “Brecht called this city a place that’s filled with people from nowhere and nowhere-bound,” he says. He’s swung one leg under the other and is sitting slightly sideways in this chair. “We’re not a homogenous consensus, and that’s a positive, especially when you’re dealing with materials that have been so politicized and, beyond that, instrumentalized. Because how much can you really delve into an issue if everyone has already decided what it means? What then can a museum possibly do other than to confirm what you already know?”
What Jampol is pointing out-and what I confess I’ve never really thought about much-is how much our backgrounds affect our encounters with the physical relics of history. Suppose we come across a museum display of an 18th-century British Army uniform. We might marvel at the intricacy of the stitching. We might wonder if it was unpleasant to wear. But the emotional burdens of history-the American War of Independence, for example-probably won’t intrude. On the other hand, if we look at a German S.S. uniform from the 1940s, history will tend to overwhelm any appreciation of the object as, say, a piece of design. And so it is with many things from the recent past. German audiences don’t have enough emotional distance from, say, an Erich Honecher portrait to view it as anything but junk. But Angelenos-barely cognizant of today, let alone yesterday-do.
Jampol has filled the Wende with all sorts of Cold-War era artifacts: oil paintings, consumer products, public-service films, periodicals, letters, personal papers, office products, furniture, and even surveillance equipment. It’s an archeological collection from an era whose details are disappearing from memory faster than we think. Jampol has also made use of spaces outside the museum. If you’re strolling along Wilshire Boulevard near Fairfax, you can see ten slabs of the Berlin Wall, each weighing nearly three tons, planted on a lawn in front of an office building. It’s the biggest, and certainly heaviest, assemblage of Berlin Wall outside of Berlin.
The exhibits at the Wende contain a minimum of narrative. “The materials already carry such a burden of connotation,” Jampol says. “By putting them in a very traditional exhibit space-and there are actually international norms of how to treat cultural materials in a museum-we’re re-contextualizing them.” And it works. You find yourself saying, hey, that painting of Lenin is actually kind of-well, a good painting.
Jampol went to public schools in Los Angeles, graduating from Hamilton High School in 1996. He got his undergraduate degree from UCLA and enrolled at St. Antony’s College at Oxford, where he intended to study Soviet life during the Cold War. His focus eventually shifted to East Germany, thanks in part to frequent hops over to Berlin. What interested him was how people create normalcy under highly strange circumstances. A post-Nazi Soviet occupation fit the bill. Germany’s official archives were mostly unhelpful, however. “The state claimed to control everything, and that was it,” Jampol recalls over a second gin and tonic. (I’ve had a Manhattan but have now switched to ginger ale.) “There were no subversives. There was no homosexuality. There was no dissent. Everybody loved the party.”
Jampol knew there had to be more to the story, and the things he was finding outside of the archives added to his certainty. For instance, at a flea market underneath the Brandenburg Gate he came across the scrapbook of an East German stamp-collecting group from the 1950s. “It was about their experiences of saying, ‘Even if we could travel, even if we were allowed to travel to other parts of the world, we could never afford it, so our connection to the rest of the world is through stamps.’ I thought that was wonderful. So I bought it.”
Before long, Jampol was saving other pieces of East German history from the scrap heap. Some people found it odd that he wanted stuff like old restaurant menus. But what better source for historians interested in the food culture of East Germany? Others shrugged when he acquired yet another bust of Stalin or Lenin. But had they noticed that during the 1940s and 50s Stalin had gotten taller in statues, and his arms longer, while Lenin had become shorter and stumpier? No documents attest to this, but historian Robert Service was able to prove it by making use of Jampol’s collection.
As word of Jampol’s efforts spread, strangers from all over the former Eastern bloc pulled stuff out of the incineration pile and tracked him down to turn it over. Before long, he had two forty-foot containers of stuff in Berlin and no idea what to do with it all.
His first effort was to donate it to some museum-any museum, really-in Germany. No one would take it. “Here, we have this idea of ‘preservation is good,’” Jampol says. “There, they don’t just have issues about what to preserve. They also have committees of destruction, about what to destroy.” So he shipped his collection back to California, where he’d been guaranteed a year of free storage in Gardena.
L.A., Jampol explains over a third gin and tonic, came as a relief. “In Germany, everyone had been saying, ‘Was ist dein konzept?’” he says. “L.A. was a different story. Everybody has a project here. I met people in line who gave trucking from the airport. I met somebody at a party who gave me free customs support. People here know what it’s like to uproot. That’s the L.A. experience.”
Jampol found a plausible exhibition space in a drab Culver City office park and moved his stuff over there. Then he made calls to everyone he knew, like his former UCLA professors, and to people he didn’t know, like the CEO of the Getty. The Getty head immediately expressed interest in Jampol’s project and announced he’d send his top directors to check it out.
Jampol hadn’t even installed lights or painted the walls of his space, so he read up on international museum standards and scrambled to put together an exhibit. Just over a week later, several vans pulled up to the museum-to-be and unloaded fifteen men and women in suits. These were Getty top brass. “I was so nervous,” he says. “I was still vacuuming when they came in.”
The Getty directors liked what they saw and sent an expert to help Jampol organize the materials and ensure they were stored using the latest in preservation technology. The museum opened not long after and attracted favorable notice and funding. Today, the Wende employs over ten people full time, two of them in Germany.
In 2009, to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jampol persuaded the City of Los Angeles to let him place a Berlin Wall replica across Wilshire Boulevard for a few hours, culminating in a knockdown of the wall and a street celebration. This sort of stunt-not a bad word, in this case-is typical of Jampol’s approach to his work. It’s daring and bold. Since then, the ten hunks of wall on display have drawn a varied audience, including Mexican-Americans contemplating the “Tortilla Curtain” and protesters demonstrating against the People’s Republic of China. “When you’ve latched onto something that really resonates with people, it becomes about so much more than that moment in time,” Jampol says. “It becomes a vessel that’s being filled with personal experiences.”
I ask him for some sage words, a tip for the road on which to conclude, and he notes that the gin has been helpful in preparing for moments like this. “If anything has come out of this project, it’s that there’s no blueprint for anything that you do,” he says. “The museum is different today from what it was yesterday. Rather than being afraid of not having a plan, we could all embrace that a bit-not knowing.”
Of course, a cynical journalist shouldn’t admit to finding that sort of statement inspirational. But I do. And this is L.A. We get away with breaking the rules. Just look at Justin Jampol.
T.A. Frank is Ideas Editor at Zócalo Public Square.
*Photo by T.A. Frank.