A Museum with a Bunker Mentality

Los Angeles’ Wende Museum offers an intriguing look at a vast collection of Cold War artifacts, on display in an ideal space

The Wende Museum’s exhibits include Cold War surveillance equipment, artwork and photos.
The Wende Museum’s exhibits include Cold War surveillance equipment, artwork and photos.

If you were planning a museum devoted to the Cold War, you couldn’t pick a much better venue than a thick-walled fortress built in 1949 to prepare for World War III.

That’s where the Wende Museum is housed — in a former National Guard Armory in Culver City. For decades, the building stored weapons, food and water in anticipation of World War III; it even has a special bunker for sheltering humans.

But since last year, it’s been the home of The Wende, founded in 2002 by Justinian Jampol to house his massive collection of Cold War artifacts, one of the world’s largest. The armory’s Cold War origins provide an irony that Jampol, a 40-year-old modern European history scholar, relishes. “The Cold War as we know has ended,” Jampol says. “But if we are drawing lessons from it — in terms of impact — certainly that’s still being felt.”

The Wende Museum’s profile was raised dramatically last year when it relocated from an office park to its new home in the erstwhile armory. The one-acre campus now boasts a museum with 13,000 square feet of open-access storage and exhibition space, as well as a sculpture garden featuring not-so-typical “sculptures,” like a California-made air raid siren that once stood in Claremont.

“Wende” (pronounced “venda”) is a German word meaning “turning point” that describes the transformative period leading up to and following the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Jampol was an 11-year-old living in West Los Angeles. “I distinctly remember seeing the Los Angeles Times headline and recognizing the significant response on the part of my parents, and not being able to understand why,” Jampol says.

In his teens, Jampol’s budding interests in archaeology and culture led to several visits to Israel, with stopovers and later extended visits to Berlin. He was intrigued by how present — and unresolved — the city’s modern history felt and still feels.

“History had left its scars on the city,” Jampol says. “History was on the front page of the newspapers, but it was also bullet-pocked in the streets. All of the sudden the war was not this black-and-white documentary that my parents showed me.”

At the time, the Brandenburg Gate sat on a field of dirt, not in the elegant plaza that welcomes visitors today. Citizens gathered there to sell their belongings, flea-market style, from suitcases and briefcases. Jampol noticed that people’s stories were often connected to their objects and, as a graduate student in the early 2000s, he began stockpiling Eastern Bloc art and artifacts: textiles, furniture and household objects, menus, toys, artwork and more.

As a complement to “official” records, the ephemera of everyday life can reveal much and help scholars read between the lines. “I was always very interested in the materials that showed where those cracks were, so one of the first types of collections I started to acquire were scrapbooks,” Jampol says.


Today, the museum’s holdings are vast and varied. The East German collection, for example, includes the largest section of the original Berlin Wall outside of Berlin (10 sections of which are currently installed on Wilshire Boulevard across from LACMA), the archive of a Checkpoint Charlie border guard, and a top-secret map of Berlin used by East German border troops in preparation for a possible occupation of West Berlin.

The entire collection numbers more than 100,000 items, and Jampol and his team are mining it to delve into diverse and complex Cold War stories. This summer, in collaboration with the Getty Research Institute, the museum is presenting an exhibition about Hungary’s visual culture between the 1956 uprising in Budapest and the 1989 end of the regime. It examines Hungary’s unique position in the East Bloc, characterized by loyalty to the Soviet Union in international matters with a relatively liberal domestic climate.

Jampol sees this kind of nuanced presentation as a distinctly L.A. approach. “L.A., in some ways, is all about multiple narratives coexisting, conflicting and overlaid,” he explains. Like the Cold War, “it doesn’t have the elevator pitch of what it is. But the Cold War is an incredible case study for thinking about those fundamental questions about humanity and who we are.”

At a time when Russian spies, arms escalation, rising nationalism and election meddling are back in the news, are we in the midst of Cold War 2.0?

“I don’t know if it’s called Cold War 2.0 or Hot War 1.0, but I do think that it’s that process of sifting through history and analyzing, and I’ve always felt that was the ethos of this place,” Jampol says. “If the Cold War was about being opaque and secrecy, this place is about transparency and access.”

Stacey Ravel Abarbanel writes about and consults for museums, artists and cultural organizations.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Three more L.A. museums that tackle thorny subjects

  • Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust: The oldest survivor-founded Holocaust museum in the United States, it moved in 2010 to a new home in Pan Pacific Park.
  • Japanese American National Museum: JANM’s ongoing exhibition examines the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans and includes an original barracks structure from a Wyoming concentration camp.
  • Museum of Tolerance: Founded by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, this museum helps visitors understand the Holocaust and major contemporary issues of intolerance and human rights violations.


      Stacey Ravel Abarbanel writes about art, culture, and history and is a consultant for museums and other cultural organizations.
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