The Berlin Wall in Los Angeles

Ampelmann

Can you believe it’s been twenty years since the Berlin Wall fell? Can you believe a section of this wall is standing in Los Angeles, CA? Yes, it’s true, and last week, I made it out to the Wende Museum in Culver City to check it out. You see, I have a soft spot for Berlin. My first trip to the city was in 1991, and then I lived there from 1992 to 1994.

The word “Wende,” which means turning point in German, is used to describe the transitions that occurred in Eastern Europe before, during and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Wende Museum here in LA is a non-profit devoted to gathering and preserving cultural and political objects, personal histories and documentary materials of Cold War era Eastern Europe but focuses mostly on East Germany (DDR) and the Soviet Union (USSR). In other words, it’s trying to preserve a lost culture. As soon as communism fell in these places, capitalism moved in and took over, and an entire culture (for better or worse) got wiped out. Their way of  life became obsolete.

The Wende Museum aims to preserve this slice of history. There’s a section of the Berlin Wall standing outside in the parking lot. There are documentary films on one man’s experience as a border guard, an artist who started his career painting on the Wall, and a Westerner who ended up in jail in the DDR. There’s footage of a protest marking the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall in 1986, shot by the secret police in the East. Also, there’s plenty of glorious Communist kitsch and a few rooms of paintings from the USSR and DDR. According to the Wende Museum’s web site:

The Museum offers a broad and comprehensive collection of over 100,000 objects and archival materials, including household consumer products, clothing, folk art, diaries and scrapbooks, political iconography, photograph albums, posters, films, textbooks, paintings, sports awards and certificates, and children’s toys. These resources, which are often outside the scope of official archives and traditional museum collections, present a valuable window through which to view the everyday interactions and relationships that shaped life behind the Iron Curtain.

I went on a Friday around 3 pm, so I got a tour of the vault, which holds everything from bronze statues of Lenin to books on art in the DDR. They have a selection of educational films from that era as well as paintings, military uniforms, posters, street signs, banners and some of the original signage from Checkpoint Charlie. The manager of public programs, Cristina Cuevas-Wolf, explained that for a while people in these countries didn’t want to deal with the past, so they didn’t appreciate these objects as historical artifacts. Now, twenty years later, people are beginning to appreciate their value—maybe it has to do with the next generation coming of age and asking a lot of questions—and  Southern California is a neutral (as well as geographically far-removed) place to collect these artifacts.

My visit brought back a wave of memories. I remember being in Berlin in the early 90s when there was still an obvious difference between the East and West. The East was like a ghost town. Checkpoint Charlie was still standing. The subway system was not very well connected; if you wanted to travel from the western part of the city to the former East, it took forever. Potsdamer Platz was an empty field where people dumped their old sofas. Walking around Prenzlauerberg or Mitte in the afternoon, there was nowhere to get a cup of coffee! Berlin was like the land that time forgot.

I kind of miss that gritty, grubby place. When I scan in some of my photos from that era, I will post a few here on The Slog.

(You can read Part Zwei of this post here.)

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~ by Valerie Palmer on August 6, 2009.

One Response to “The Berlin Wall in Los Angeles”

  1. […] I wrote about my visit to Culver City’s Wende Museum here on The Slog. At the time, I didn’t realize the museum was one of the organizers for The Wall Project […]

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