As an undergraduate student studying modern German history at Loyola Marymount University, I had the unique experience of studying less than five miles away from the Wende Museum and Archive – easily the largest archive of East German cultural history in the Western United States (if not the entire U.S.) This proved to be an immensely useful resource. Over the course of four years of undergraduate study, I made use of the Wende during my sophomore, junior and senior years. During my sophomore year I participated in a binational (German and American) undergraduate research group and contributed to the Wende’s recently-launched online exhibition (see the previous entries from Elizabeth Drummond about the Wende Museum Project). As a junior I returned to the Wende to comb through their archives for my own research while writing a seminar paper; this seminar paper later formed the basis (and roughly the last third) of my senior-year thesis. While writing that thesis I made use of the Wende’s archives once again and also received hands-on experience of archive work from the “other side” as a research intern. It is safe to say that the proximity to this resource not only strengthened my own research but also guided my academic path, which has led to a doctoral program in history at the University of Tennessee.
If I had to narrow it down, I would say that my work with the Wende taught me two important lessons relevant to my studies in history:
1) How do make use of an archive. Archival research is one of the most basic tools of a historian, but undergraduate students of history rarely get the chance to do it. Admittedly, not every university is conveniently placed adjacent to an archive, but nevertheless, having the chance to conduct archival research prior to entering graduate school was a great opportunity. The Wende Museum’s archive is small by most standards, but it is still cavernous (and cold! The work stations within it were actually equipped with space heaters) enough to earn its nickname of “the Vault.” While working at the Wende, I learned important lessons about how to locate specific documents from within this vast, frigid space and how to handle them. In the case of the Wende, they have a well-organized digital database with all of the collection indexed to a series of tags and with searchable descriptions, thus providing for easy navigation within the archive.
2) How to interpret cultural artifacts. The main goal of the Wende Museum is to archive cultural artifacts and not simply retell the basic history of the German Democratic Republic; therefore, their archives are stocked not with Stasi documents or transcriptions of political meetings but with home magazines, books and consumer electronics (to name a few examples). Artifacts like these have a lot to teach us; they serve as windows into the everyday life (or Alltagsleben, if you will) of a society that, for the most part, no longer exists. Through cultural artifacts, one can determine and analyze a variety of attributes. To use an example from my own research, I used popular antifascist films to examine East Germans perceptions of their role in the Second World War and how the Socialist Unity Party fostered the antifascist foundational mythology of the GDR. I also had the opportunity to work with the East German lifestyle magazine Kultur im Heim. Researching this magazine afforded me the opportunity to look into East German everyday life and consumer culture to analyze issues such as private spaces, East German design philosophy, and how the state’s political agenda was realized through consumer goods. For example, the heavy use of plastic in new toys, tools and cookware was a direct result of the regime’s “pushing” of plastics to strengthen one of the GDR’s strongest domestic industries. Admittedly, not every historian studies cultural history. However, analyzing cultural artifacts is an important and at times overlooked skill, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to develop it.
Every undergraduate student of history should pursue the opportunity to conduct first-hand primary-document research. Of course there is nothing wrong with the classic method of conducting research in the library, writing the paper, and turning it in all without leaving campus; but if the opportunity to go out and conduct history in a “real-world” setting exists, it shouldn’t be passed up. Without the academic foundation that I built up with the help of the Wende’s archives, I likely would not have done the academic work that resulted in my application and acceptance to a Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where I am continuing my work on 20th-century Central and Eastern Europe.
Nolan Rivkin graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2013 with a major in History and minors in both German and Jewish Studies. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, working with Dr. Monica Black.