At the beginning of my senior year graduation already loomed. Decisions about the future, careers, and next steps all felt too close for comfort. I always knew that I loved history but was not sure how to turn that into a career. I got an email from Professor Drummond at the beginning of the semester asking me to take part in the Wende Museum Workshop, in which students from Loyola Marymount University and from the University of Leipzig would collaborate to create an online exhibition from the Wende Museum’s archives. I jumped at the opportunity to participate. I have always loved museums and the work they do, and was eager to explore the field further. The project focused on bringing to life the rich history of East Germany under Communist rule, to give viewers the opportunity to understand everyday life in the German Democratic Republic, through an online exhibit featuring real life artifacts, photos, and eyewitness accounts.
I worked on the “public spaces” portion of the exhibit, which focused on the ideal socialist city and the state’s attempt to promote a “social consciousness.” The Communist state in East Germany aimed to create each city with socialist purpose – from the street names to art and architecture. This was more than mere urban planning: the city was built to inspire those within it to love and live by the socialist political culture. The city, and its public spaces, served to educate citizens. My partner Richard and I wanted to emphasize this unique feature of the GDR’s public spaces through our artifacts. However, working on public spaces meant that we had few physical artifacts to work with. Photos displaying public spaces proved to be our most reliable sources, and we focused on recognizable streets, buildings, and monuments. Our next steps were, first, to think about what exactly we wanted to convey within our public spaces exhibit, and, second, to decide how to properly convey the information in a digestible way for audiences.
Richard and I started by looking through the Wende Museum’s holdings for specific artifacts that highlighted the use of public spaces, in addition to working with our advisors to come up with our thesis: public spaces served to mobilize, politicize, and educate the people. With these three emphases in mind, we settled on four artifacts that would convey our thesis. The first was a mural in Halle-Neustadt by Josep Renau titled “The Unity of the Working Class and the Founding of the GDR,” which provided a visual representation of key ideological principles of the “New Germany.” The second was a picture of several street signs from the East Berlin, which carried the names of prominent communist thinkers and activists, including Freidrich Engels and Ernst Thalmann. These street signs helped keep the memory of these socialist heroes alive. The third artifact was a photo of the May Day Parade, the epitome of a constructed political event. May Day, May 1st, also known as the International Workers’ Day of Action and Celebration for Peace and Socialism, was the most celebrated day in the year, and the public spaces within the city functioned to enhance the celebrations. Lastly, we chose a blueprint for Stalinallee, the most significant boulevard in East Berlin. Lined with magnificent office and apartment buildings designed with the socialist ideal in mind, the boulevard was meant to show the citizens of the GDR, and the rest of the world, that a Communist state was capable of achieving the ideal – according to their own – standard of city design.
Once we chose our artifacts we moved to in-depth research. We created small blurbs for each of the artifacts, quick and simple so that exhibition visitors could understand the purpose of the public spaces. We also gave readers the ability to explore all the artifacts in depth with links to further information and suggested reading. My research focused in particular on the perceptions of Stalinallee at home and abroad. East German city planners and architects celebrated the design of the street, claiming it to be the design of an ideal socialist city. However, I found a 1952 article in the American publication Life Magazine, which questioned this notion of a socialist utopia. The article debunked East German officials’ claims, pointing to a protest that broke out over poor working conditions and food shortages as well as emphasizing Stalinallee’s poor construction. The boulevard was still being built when Stalin died a year later, and officials quickly changed the name to Karl-Marx-Allee. The Life article was a key research item for me because it provided an outsider’s perspective, albeit an American, anti-communist one, that questioned the narrative East Germans presented about Stalinallee.
Richard and I worked well together as a team. Prior to arriving in Los Angeles, the German students had taken courses both in East German history and in museum studies. They were also able to devote all of their time to the workshop, while the other LMU students and I had to balance the workshop with our other classes and work. That meant that Richard and the German students were able to dive deep into the research about the artifacts and focus on the micro level. Richard brought lots of additional insight and knowledge that helped me greatly. But the LMU students and I were able to provide a macro perspective — to look at the exhibit as a whole and see it as a visitor would, to focus on the overall narrative rather than the details. This dual perspective was necessary for the successful completion of our exhibit. Richard and I also worked well together because we were open and able to share ideas with each other. We felt comfortable talking through what we wanted to do, sharing research materials, and offering suggestions, which ensured that our portion of the exhibit had a good sense of flow. Richard shared his knowledge with me so that I could focus on my pieces of the exhibit, but I was able to help him take a step back from all the information and see how all the pieces fit together.
The idea of taking on additional research projects while a student at university might sometimes feel more like a burden than an enriching educational experience. I loved working on the project because I developed a better understanding of archives, public displays of history, and museums, as well as broadened my knowledge about a subject I knew little about. Presenting at the Undergraduate Research Symposium felt intimidating, but it taught me important presentation skills. From my experience, what is most important for any student research project is to make sure that the subject matter is compelling to the students and driven by their interests so they are willing to devote the necessary time to it. Another important personal takeaway away from the project was that while I prefer to work independently, good partnerships can be of great benefit to both individuals. I could rely on Richard to help and teach me, and vice versa. Through our teamwork we ensured a successful completion of the project that probably would not have happened if we worked alone.
What I loved most about the project was learning about museum work. The “hands-on” work in the museum enabled me to learn about the process, the language, and the idea of “public history.” The information is important, but the way it is communicated sheds the most understanding. It makes history dynamic, creating new possibilities and perspectives. While I found the subject matter interesting, I particularly enjoyed the creation and organization of historical information in a museum. Reflecting on the project in this post has also helped me digest the project and what I took away from it. Beyond my genuine interest and passion for history, reflection and understanding the value of information continue to compel me to keep reading, writing, and learning about history.
Elizabeth Hedge graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2012 with degrees in History and Political Science, Magna Cum Laude . She wrote an Honors Political Science thesis on “Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage in America: The Courts Ability to Enact Social Change” and completed the Wende Museum Workshop in her senior year. New Zealand and British bred, Elizabeth was born in Hong Kong, and spent her childhood moving throughout Asia until beginning her studies at Loyola Marymount University in 2008.