The Wende Museum offers fresh perspectives on the Cold War in Culver City’s historic armory building
The 1949 National Guard Armory Building in Culver City was designed to withstand an atomic blast should the Soviets decide to drop nuclear bombs on Los Angeles.
This weekend it begins a second life as the new headquarters of the Wende Museum, preserving and displaying a vast collection of Soviet and East German artifacts to illuminate the complexities of our fraught Cold War past.
Talk about a twist of fate — or, as the Wende’s chief curator Joes Segal observes: “It’s a funny paradox of history that a building designed to fight ‘the enemy’ showcases the objects of ‘the enemy.’”
On Sunday, the public gets its first chance to explore the Wende’s new Culver Boulevard digs and view items in its inaugural exhibitions during an afternoon community open house celebration. Regular visiting hours begin Nov. 24, when the museum will offer free admission Fridays through Sundays.
A more exclusive Saturday night preview will be hosted by German art book publisher Benedikt Taschen, musician Moby, and actors Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Tim Robbins and Mark Valley, with artist-activist Shepard Fairey performing a deejay set.
These celebrations and expanded offerings come as the capstone to a $5-million capital campaign and a partnership with Culver City to renovate the armory and relocate the museum from a nearby business park.
Once a secretive military installation deliberately left off public maps, the now revamped armory features an outdoor sculpture garden and 13,000 square feet of interior exhibit and open-access storage space, where about half of the museum’s collection of 100,000-plus Cold War artifacts will be readily available for display, viewing or research purposes.
Themes of access and transparency were deliberately woven into the redesign by Culver City-based Paravant Architects, with design input from Michael Boyd and Taschen. Clear-glass storage cases display the archives adjacent to the main exhibition space, with lots of natural light.
“Most museums are all about the curator deciding what you see and what you don’t see,” says Wende executive director and founder Justin Jampol, a UCLA and Oxford-trained historian who brought the collection to Culver City 12 years ago because of its geopolitical distance from Moscow and Berlin. “So what we decided to do to turn that on its head is to make every room in the museum viewable by the public. … There are a lot of chances for people to peer in and kind of see what the museum staff is doing behind the scenes.”
Even with these updates, the Wende stayed true to its preservation mission by leaving some of the armory’s Cold War architectural elements intact, including two above-ground nuclear fallout shelters and a vintage emergency air filtration system.
“In a sort of counterpoint to the Cold War — which was all about opaque secrets and spying — this is all about access and transparency,” Jampol says of the Wende’s design philosophy.
Similarly, the Wende’s inaugural exhibitions at the armory — “The Russians,” “Cold War Spaces” and the film installation “Vessel of Change” — aim to pull back the curtain on the U.S.S.R.’s menacing mystique and humanize those who lived behind the Iron Curtain.
“The Russians” is a collection of portraits that show a vivid cross-section of Soviet society, from a young boy sporting a trench coat and oversized sunglasses to an older woman in traditional babushka headscarf flashing a joyous smile with a mouth full of steel teeth. In 1977, an American photographer used a Polaroid camera equipped with specially adapted film to photograph hundreds of people in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk and then smuggled the negatives out the country via U.S. embassy diplomatic pouches.
“I think as Nathan Farb, the photographer himself, said about the series, it gives ‘the enemy’ a human face,” says Segal, also an affiliate researcher at the Netherland’s University of Utrecht and author of “Art and Politics: Between Purity and Propaganda.” “[Farb] was struck by the effect that while you might think of the Soviet population as one great mass [of] people, there were so many distinctions. You could actually differentiate between different classes of society. … And somehow he also had the ability to get the people he photographed at ease so much that they look very relaxed and very much themselves. That is what’s so striking, I think, about these photos. They are very personal.”
And intimate, like several pieces in the concurrent exhibit “Cold War Spaces,” which explores various facets of life in Soviet Russia and the Eastern Bloc through the lenses of public space, private space, secret space, workspace and even outer space. From photographs documenting elaborate civic rituals to Space Race propaganda and paintings depicting private moments of subversion in the U.S.S.R.’s surveillance state, the exhibit’s artworks and artifacts offer a multifaceted view of life in the Soviet Union.
“We want to show the contradictions of histories and the layers of histories … and connect the past to the present,” says Segal. “The philosophy of the museum in general is to allow people to think about these different layers of history.”
For Jampol, the Wende’s new home at the armory is the ideal place to embark on the museum’s next chapter.
“It’s a very Cold War building, but it’s a Cold War story as well. So there’s so much alignment and connective tissue with the museum,” he says. “I think it creates an opportunity to leverage all the work that’s been done and provide it now to a larger audience. We’ve been doing this work behind the scenes for a long time and loaning the material out. Now we’ll have a chance to do it in a space where everybody can come. The community has given us so much, and this is our chance to give back.”
The Wende hosts its ticketed opening gala ($100 to $275) from 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 18) and its free community open house from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 19) at the former National Guard Armory Building, 10808 Culver Blvd., Culver City. Visit wendemuseum.org/armory for tickets and venue information.