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UCLA

The Wall is Still Tumbling Down

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Published Oct 1, 2014 8:00 AM


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Installation Competing Utopias, which is now open to the public at the Neutra VDL Studio and Residence

"The future of this history is being decided now," declares Justinian Jampol '00. As founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War, Jampol is keenly aware of November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell — and the fact that the wall is still falling. And being rebuilt.

Jampol spends his days surrounded by that history in the Wende's cramped space: Dozens of busts of Lenin. Officious military patches. A tiny car that looks like a child's mechanical toy but is designed to teach driving. End tables that are oddly utilitarian-beautiful, like severe eyeglasses on an appealing face. A Checkpoint Charlie exhibit with original furnishings and the only existing video shot from the East German guard post — footage that revised a previously accepted claim that West Germans failed to protest on August 13, 1986, the 25th anniversary of the wall's creation.

There are also scholars at work in the museum from UCLA and across the world. Tucked beneath a staircase, a woman reviews 1980s-era video interviews. At a huddle of desks, a man catalogs underground gay erotica from the former Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR).

"There is still a Cold War lens for viewing the world," Jampol says. "That history still has presence in our daily lives. We wrestle daily with questions about what gets preserved and why."

Los Angeles may seem an odd place to preserve such a Eurocentric history, but Jampol says the location is an advantage. "Being in L.A., outside the political debates, has helped us," he says. The location lends more than objectivity. "It's helped us become the world's foremost institution of its kind, a museum and archive that supports research and open debate. L.A. is the perfect place because of the city's flexibility and resistance to deep-seated traditions."

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protest sign, mounted on wood, depicting East German leader Erich Honecker in the crosshairs, used in 1989 uprising, East Germany

The Wende — named for the German word meaning "turning point," used to refer to the collapse of the GDR and German reunification — has attracted the attention of German publisher Benedikt Taschen, who shares Jampol's appreciation for placing cultural artifacts in a political context. Taschen is developing a limited-edition book capturing the Wende's East German collection, the first of a three-book deal and Taschen's first to use "augmented reality" technology, giving readers direct access to supplementary material via tablet or smartphone. Taschen will release a 25,000-copy trade edition in 2015. Several traveling exhibitions will follow.

Taschen also helped the Wende acquire and refurbish the Armory building in Culver City. A sneak preview of the new $10 million home in November will coincide with the 25th anniversary of the wall falling.

Jampol is amazed and grateful. "These big players are willing to invest in my projects," he says. "One person I could accept, but then it was two, three and four. Finally I thought, 'OK, there is something to this.' The museum has already greatly exceeded anything I ever imagined."

Jampol began acquiring pieces in the mid-1990s and incorporated the museum in 2000. Despite the books, the new home, a 15-person staff, pieces in The Wall Street Journal and in The New York Times, and exhibitions that have been on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Venice Biennale, Jampol still wonders if it's all real.

"I'm going to use whatever time and resources I've been given to be as crazy as I can and turn up the volume 100 times more than I ever anticipated," he says.

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