By Bridgette M. Redman
May Day is a red letter day for the Wende Museum, an institution that captures and displays Cold War history from the former Soviet Bloc.
Not only is May Day the day socialists and communists from the Second International designated as International Workers’ Day, but it marks the day that the Wende is reopening after a year of pandemic shutdown.
After its initial Saturday reopening, the museum will be open by reservation only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free, but walk-ins can’t be accommodated at this time — and chief curator and director of programming Joes Segal said they have already filled many of the reservation slots.
The museum had hoped to reopen last November when they installed new exhibitions, but the surge in COVID-19 cases made that impossible.
“We have been planning for it for quite a long time,” Segal said. “We are in a good place. It’s so exciting to get to a point where we can actually receive people.”
The Wende welcomes patrons back with a total of four new exhibits: two in the main building, one in the East German guard house and one in the garden.
Pivoting during the pandemic
Back when the Wende first had to shut down more than a year ago, they immediately turned to online programming. They started a weekly interview series that continues to this day and other programming that took off very quickly.
“That kept us busy and our constituents active,” Segal said. “And we discovered that by doing so we reached a new public. Our weekly series has people Zooming in from 59 different countries. That was unthinkable before.”
As much as possible, the museum staff worked from home, having weekly staff and other meetings over Zoom. It forced them into new structures and organization, and Segal feels they will be coming out of the pandemic even more professional than before because of all that they learned during this time.
The weekly Zoom program was a series on spaces — from Cold War to pandemic and domestic spaces. When they first started, Segal thought they’d do 10 or 15 and have a nice series. Now they have finished 38 of them and confirmed up to 42.
“There were so many interesting topics and interesting researchers that came up, that I just continued,” Segal said. “I could go on forever, but I won’t. I’m thinking maybe to go up to 50 interviews and then it might be time to try something new.”
Upcoming topics include “Under-The-Table Space: Artistic Expression in a Kommunalka” on May 5 and “Spaces of Global Socialism: Worldmaking Architecture” on May 12. The May 5 program features an interview with Eugene Yelchin, an award-winning Russian-American children’s book author, painter and illustrator. The name comes from how Yelchin, who grew up in a communal apartment in Leningrad, became an artist.
“He had to sleep under his grandmother’s table because there was no space in the apartment,” Segal said. “He started with a pencil to scratch drawings on the bottom of the table and that’s how he became an artist.”
In the May 12 program, Segal interviews Lukasz Stanek, an architectural historian who wrote about architecture and urbanist collections between the Soviet Bloc countries on the one hand and the Middle East and Africa on the other.
“We have a few other fun ones coming up,” Segal said. “One I’m very much looking forward to is a German historian about the importance of the perfume Chanel No. 5 in the Soviet Union.”
Exhibits focus on transformation
While there have been online 3D tours of the latest four exhibitions, Segal said it is different seeing it in person, which people will be able to do starting May 1.
The main exhibition is called “Transformations” and it examines the meaning of objects when they are in different times and contexts.
“In a sense, it is an exhibition about the history of the Wende Museum itself,” Segal said. “We have all these objects from Soviet Bloc countries during the Cold War that started as objects of everyday life.”
After the Berlin Wall fell, many people threw out these objects, which ended up in flea markets and landfills. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, historians started to collect them and many ended up at the Wende Museum where they became historical or aesthetic artifacts.
The exhibition captures that journey with the first room being an East German living room and garden. As people walk through, they end up in a flea market followed by a museum and then an art studio where artists are asked to reflect on the exhibition and use the same items that appear in the different rooms – but in a different context and meaning.
One example is a painting in the “museum” room from the 1960s where a group of women are putting together a huge flower portrait of Vladimir Lenin for a May 1 parade. The contemporary artist, Farrah Karapetian, examined what motivated these women and their ideologies.
She sent out a survey to universities and colleges asking students what the motivating idea was in their lives. She put together all their answers and created a video of a woman picking flowers in different colors while a choir sings the answers given in the survey.
“We displayed it in a way where you have the painting on one side, a theater curtain and Farrah’s video on the other side to make the connection,” Segal said.
The questions raised and discussions sparked by the objects in the exhibition are things Segal said are quite universal, referencing such things as how objects used by Native Americans or during the African diaspora change contexts when they are put in a museum.
“I think this exhibition can fuel those discussions and reflect on what it means when an object travels through space and time,” Segal said.
Looking through different lenses
A parallel exhibition is called “See Thy Neighbor: Stern Photographers Thomas Hoepker and Harald Schmitt in the GDR.”
In the 1970s, two West German photographers, Thomas Hoepker and Harald Schmitt, worked for Stern Magazine and were the first to be stationed in East Germany. Hoepker documented East German life but didn’t like it very much. After two years, he got an offer to work in New York and immediately accepted.
His successor, Schmitt, loved East Germany and even married an East German woman. He stayed until he was expelled under accusations of being a spy. Both Hoepker and Schmitt took pictures of the same things, but from different attitudes. The exhibition pairs photos of the same things so that the differences can be seen. The garden installation is “Common Fantasy” and “Relics of the Cold War.”
“We want to be a very experimental institution that reflects not only Cold War history, but the connections between us and the present (as in ‘Transformations’) and the history and functioning of the museum as an institution,” Segal said.