One of Los Angeles’s best-kept cultural secrets is moving. For more than a decade, the Wende Museum, an institution devoted to documenting the history of the Cold War, occupied a second-floor space in the back of an office park in Culver City.
This weekend, it will open in an old armory on Culver Boulevard. In its new home, the collection of more than 100,000 items will be more accessible to the public.
Museum founder and director Justin Jampol describes the move as “the culmination of this long transition from being a research-focused archival museum to one where we are providing access to that research and those materials.”
Jampol, 39, is a historian who researched the appropriation of Socialist symbols for his dissertation at Oxford University. When he was 25 he tried to donate the small collection of items he had accumulated in the process to museums in the United States or Europe. They weren’t interested, so he opened the Wende Museum in 2002.
During its early years the museum focused on preservation and research. Jampol felt that there was “a window to collect the materials before they are gone, and if we started getting into visitor engagement, that’s a huge investment of time and resources.”
A pivotal moment in the institution’s history came in 2009, when the German government invited it to take part in the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Los Angeles, Berlin’s sister city. “It felt like there was this opportunity to combine history with the political culture of Los Angeles,” Jampol recalls.
That same year, the Culver City native attended a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting across the street from the armory. After the meeting, a community organizer showed him the edifice, which was built in 1949. It was part of an experimental model for the defense of the West Coast. A small contingent of the National Guard used it at the time and didn’t let anyone in to look around. “The building was a secret space — it wasn’t on any map and not even zoned,” Jampol says.
It took a long time to create appropriate zoning and convince city officials as well as the public that this old armory should be converted into the Wende Museum’s new home. “I attended a lot of wine-and-cheese gatherings,” Jampol says. "The city asked, ‘Don’t you want a new building? Maybe a Frank Gehry one?’" But Jampol said he much preferred the armory, not only for its historical significance but also because a $5 million funding campaign seemed much more manageable.
When he finally got inside on the day he got the key, he felt transported to an era he had researched for years. He found canned food that had expired 30 years ago, separate bunkers for guns and people, and an air filtration system that was supposed to clean the air in the event of a nuclear attack.
Someone had left a switch set to "on" and it spat 50-year-old air at the museum director when he pulled a lever. “It probably took five years off the end of my life,” Jampol jokes.
After a few months of renovation, the space transformed from a symbol of the Cold War to the home of a museum devoted to researching the Cold War. “I like this sort of poetic alignment,” Jampol says.
Inside, the main exhibition space will be wide open. On each side, 125 feet of glass shelves will house parts of the collection arranged according to 15 themes. “Everything is exposed, which I think is a nice counterpoint to the opaque, secret aspect of the Cold War,” Jampol explains.
More than 100 Lenin busts call the museum’s vault home. Also: personal papers by Erich Honecker, the former leader of the German Democratic Republic; memorabilia from the Checkpoint Charlie border guards; about 1,500 ceremonial flags; and several original pieces of the Berlin Wall.
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The museum’s curator, Joes Segal, recalls asking one donor how to authenticate the Wall pieces. He recommended comparing a piece to old photographs — or licking it.
“Apparently the concrete has a very specific substance that is identifiable by taste,” Segal says.
The opening exhibition, titled "Cold War Spaces," will showcase treasures from the museum's vast archives, divided into eight sections.
The opening festivities will begin with a preview party on Saturday, Nov. 18. On Sunday, Nov. 19, from noon to 5 p.m., the museum holds a community open house at the new space, 10808 Culver Blvd., Culver City. wendemuseum.org.