Finding Germany in the Neighborhood

Like many institutions, my university is increasingly emphasizing engaged and experiential learning, where students get out of the classroom and learn and/or apply their learning out in “the real world” (for us, this takes the form of an “Engaged Learning” requirement in the University Core Curriculum). My department also offers a concentration in Public and Applied History, which asks students to consider the public uses of the past and challenges them to apply their skills of historical analysis in the practice of public history (e.g., the curation of museum exhibitions, the development of websites, podcasts). As someone who teaches German, European, and world history, my sites of history are not local ones, which can make on-site learning in the community challenging. While I periodically teach a Nazi Germany class that includes a Spring Break trip to Berlin, I find myself somewhat envious of my Americanist colleagues, who have easy access to sites of history (and learning) and even to archives where students might do history’s version of fieldwork.

Where can we historians of Central Europe find a piece of Central Europe in the neighborhood? Here in Los Angeles, I am fortunate: I have access to the modernist homes and buildings of Austrian American architects Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, the former residences of Lion Feuchtwanger (Villa Aurora) and Thomas Mann and other sites associated with German-speaking emigrés from the interwar period, and institutions devoted to preserving and telling the history of the Holocaust (USC’s Shoah Foundation, the Holocaust Museum LA, the Museum of Tolerance). But the local piece of Central and Eastern Europe to which I have returned with students again and again is Culver City’s Wende Museum, not far from Loyola Marymount University’s campus.

What is a museum dedicated to the history of the Cold War doing in the middle of Los Angeles? Most of you are probably familiar with the museum’s origins in Justinian Jampol’s efforts to save Cold War-era material culture from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from the dust bins of history. Since its founding in 2002, the museum has expanded its mission: it continues to collect and preserve art, material culture, documents, films, and oral histories related to the Cold War and now also stages innovative exhibitions that integrate art and material culture, organizes lectures and symposia, and engages the local community in a variety of ways.

For me, the Wende Museum is also a place where students can learn about museum and archival practices and what it means to be a public history practitioner. In Telling History in Public, my public history version of our required methodology course, I bring students to the museum for a guided tour and discussions with chief curator Joes Segal and collections director Christine Rank. The visit gives students the chance to peek behind the scenes to learn about acquisitions, processing, storage, and preservation. As they tour the current exhibitions, they also learn about how to curate an exhibition, from developing the overarching narrative arc, to selecting and acquiring exhibits, to writing labels, to exhibition programming. Several LMU students have gotten hands-on experience through internships at the museum, for some a foundation for future graduate programs in history or museum studies and/or jobs in other museums, including the Autry Museum of the American West and the Petersen Automotive Museum.

LMU students have also conducted research in the Wende Museum’s archives and collections. My first collaboration with the Wende Museum was a 2010 workshop that brought together students from LMU and the University of Leipzig (led by Leo Schmieding). German and U.S.-American students worked together to curate an online exhibition about Living in a Socialist City: Urban Strategies in East Germany. They chose the themes for the exhibition, selected artifacts from the museum’s collections, researched the artifacts and broader themes, wrote the texts, and put together the exhibition (read more about one student’s workshop experience here). More recently, students in my Divided Germany in Cold War Europe course conducted research for their avatar entries and research projects in the museum. While their on-site research was interrupted by COVID closures, students were able to use the museum’s online collections and publications to continue their research, with help from the museum staff for things not available online or in print. Students produced a timeline from their avatar entries, which is interwoven with a seven-episode podcast highlighting their research.

Not everyone will have such easy access – only a fifteen-minute drive from LMU’s campus – to this kind of resource for their teaching of German and Central/Eastern European history. Fortunately, the Wende Museum’s recently redesigned website offers access to its exhibitions and programs, with online collections coming shortly. Even without this piece of Central Europe in your backyard, you can still take advantage of its wonderful collections.

Elizabeth A. Drummond, Loyola Marymount University