The Wende Museum Workshop: A Reflection on Collaborative Research — by Elizabeth Hedge

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.

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Research, Reflection, and the Road to Grad School — by Rhiannon Koehler

In my second year of college I enrolled in a research seminar that at once thrilled and terrified me (everyone else was going to be so learned and so old, seniors at least!). The title of the seminar was “Germany in the Age of Total War.” I expected to walk out of the class with knowledge of books that I otherwise would not have been exposed to and perhaps having been a part of some interesting conversations. Instead, after participating in the course and doing research for the final paper, I ended up seriously considering history as a career-path.

The texts that we read in class propelled me to do good research in that seminar. I found that you simply cannot be steeped in monographs like Eric Weitz’s Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience, or William Sheridan Allen’s The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single Germany Town, 1922-1945 without picking up a few things about how history ought to be done. Between the readings and our class discussions, which were expertly led to integrate historiography into our analysis of political, social, and cultural developments in Germany between 1914 and 1945, I found a research topic.

After reading Koonz and Allen, both of whom detail the change in German women’s lives brought about by Nazi ideology, I decided to write about women who deviated from the standard expectation of acting as wife and mother. But I wanted to do so without sticking to an examination of women in one profession. Rather, I wanted to look at the ways that women carved out space for themselves in a nation that left little room for women to diversify their professional status. I hoped to find out more about women who had joined the industrial sector, women who worked in close political proximity to Reich leadership, and women who had been deeply enmeshed with concentration camps.

I was not interested in looking at women who resisted, but rather at women who chose not to conform to ideological expectations even as they acted on behalf of or were complicit with the regime. I didn’t know who these women were at this point, but my professor pointed me in the direction of some comprehensive secondary sources that I might be able to glean for ideas of individuals to focus on. Texts such as Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland and Alison Owings’ German Women Recall the Third Reich were predictably helpful—but so too were Frank Buscher’s The US War Crimes Trial Program in Germany and David Crew’s Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945.

A close reading of these texts helped me choose the women I wanted to discuss and flesh out the framework for the paper. It became clear, though, that I would need voices from the era to support my arguments. It was at this stage that I actively began tracking down primary sources that would allow me to have an inside look at these women’s lives. I was lucky in that some of the women I chose to focus on, such as Traudl Junge, had left behind first-person narratives. I filled other gaps by examining primary sources such as the laws enacted in Nazi Germany that pertained to gender and records of public presentations about the cult of the domestic, such as those by Gertrud Scholtz-Klink. The most helpful resource, though, was an online archive of sorts, maintained by the German Historical Institute in Washington DC, German History in Documents and Images, which allowed me to access legal documents, letters, and photographs from the era without having to travel to a physical archive.

This particular online collection of primary sources was incredibly well organized and abundant, and provided me with much-needed evidence for my paper. The paper that I wrote took longer to write than any paper I’ve written since (I am now a second-year graduate student at UCLA). It was the first time that I had ever engaged with an archive of any sort, the first time that I was writing a paper with a true thesis, and the first time that I was closely reading multiple monographs for my research. It helped that I had fantastic support. I had a professor who was always available and always gave constructive feedback. I had excellent resources, and I had the time to invest. It paid off—researching for the paper gave me skills that I would carry with me into the future, and the paper itself even won an award.

My paper, which I titled “Beyond Womanhood: Complicity and Action in Nazi Germany,” paved the way for much of my future research. It also did what the best undergraduate research should do: it gave me the confidence I needed to continue in the direction of graduate school, and it provided me with the skills that I would need for the rest of college. I have siblings, now heading into college, and my main piece of advice is: don’t hold off until you are a senior to take a research seminar. Do it as early as you feel ready, because the skills you will develop in those courses will help you be successful for the rest of your academic career.

Rhiannon Koehler graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2012, with Honors, with a major in History and a minor in Theatre Arts. Her seminar paper, “Beyond Womanhood: Complicity and Action in Nazi Germany,” won the 2012 History Department Award for Best Research Paper by a History Major. She is currently a Ph.D. student in American history at UCLA.

On the Benefits of Attending College Next to An Archive — by Nolan Rivkin

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.

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: An Update about the Wende Museum Workshop

In May 2013 (see our archive), I wrote a series of entries about an undergraduate research experience I helped to organize and supervise, where Loyola Marymount University students went out into the community to do research at a local museum, the Wende Museum, and to curate, in collaboration with students from the University of Leipzig, an online exhibition. The exhibition, “Living in a Socialist City: Urban Strategies in East Germany,” is now online at the museum’s website: http://www.wendemuseum.org/programs/living-socialist-city-urban-strategies-east-germany. It can be viewed in either English or German.

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Conclusion)

Part 5: Conclusion

This type of undergraduate research requires good community partners and strong institutional support, but the benefit for students is well worth the investment of time, space, and monies. There are two main lessons that I would take away from this experience. The first lesson is that it is essential that the various partners involved – the students, the faculty, the universities, and the community partners – clarify their expectations early in the process and come to a collective understanding about them. Community-based learning is most valuable when it is neither mere charity (students doing volunteer work) nor an off-campus site for learning (where students merely use the museum, for example, as another resource), but where both parties benefit from a collaborative undertaking – where students learn from community actors and where their learning contributes back to that community. The community partner must thus be involved from the start, in designing the experience, to ensure that the student research is of a kind that will be useful for the community organization. Once students understand the community partner’s expectations, they will be better prepared to make the most of their research. The second lesson is that this specific type of community-based learning is difficult to do in the space of a month. It would work better as a full semester-long course, with the historical content (the classroom part) front-loaded into the course, as a foundation for students for when they go out of the classroom, into the community, to do hands-on work in the museum. More time and more structure might also help the students to work more efficiently towards the final project. Expanding the workshop into a proper course might also address – even if not completely – the imbalances that often exist between students from different institutions, whether domestic or international. Had we made this a semester-long course, the LMU students could have had some of the same preparation that the German students had, so that the workshop part of the course, when students came together as a group to work in the museum, could have been more truly collaborative. While this type of research should never supplant the traditional research paper, it can supplement it.

For an update about the exhibit…

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Part 4)

Part 4: The Challenges

As with any new experiment, there were a number of challenges that presented themselves before and during the workshop. With any sort of project that involves collaboration with the local community as well as international actors, one of the challenges is finding resources to support the endeavor. Participating in the workshop meant that LMU would have to invest in the workshop (with monies and space). That meant convincing the Dean that this was a project worthy of financial investment. Fortunately, the workshop dovetailed nicely with a lot of the initiatives that my college is undertaking – a focus on interdisciplinarity (history and museum studies), an effort towards internationalization (collaboration with German students), and a push for community-based learning (a partnership with the Wende Museum). Tying undergraduate research to university and college strategic planning and curricular initiatives is essential if we wish to get our universities to support it. In this case, the Dean’s Office, the Office of the VP (now Associate Provost) for Undergraduate Research, the History Department, and the European Studies Program all offered monies in support of the project; the History Department also offered space, and both our administrative assistant and I offered our time and labor. In addition, the Wende Museum allowed the students full access to the Museum’s holdings, even as it was in the midst of a thorough inventory. Cristina Cuevas-Wolf also gave generously of her own time, mentoring the students through the process of working in a museum and developing an exhibit. She also arranged for the students to have library privileges at the Getty Research Institute and to meet with local museum professionals. The German students also applied for a series of grants to support their travel to the United States.

Another challenge had to do with a certain imbalance between the German and the American students, which manifested itself in a variety of ways. The German students had already taken a course in museum studies, were well-schooled in the history of East Germany, and had German. The American students were coming to the workshop more or less as blank slates. While some of the students had taken courses in modern European history or other aspects of German history, none had taken a course in East German history specifically or in public history or museum studies, though one was an intern at the Wende Museum at the time. One of the Americans was a German heritage speaker, and a second was taking German (doing a German minor), but the other three had no German. Two additional things exacerbated the imbalance. First, the workshop took place during the regular LMU semester. Whereas the German students could devote all their time to the project, the American students were doing it in addition to their other courses and activities. They were required to devote Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to the workshop but were really unable to do more. The second was that we had the German students do a series of presentations about certain aspects of East German history and museum work. These presentations were designed to help the American students “catch up,” but it also created a certain hierarchy – with the Germans as teachers and the Americans as students. We would have been better served by skipping the presentations and just discussing some of the assigned readings, with the hope that those discussions would get the American students up to speed. Unfortunately, all of this created a situation in which the student pairs were often not really partnerships. A couple of the groups worked really well together, with both students contributing a lot of ideas, but there was a certain friction in others because of this imbalance.

Yet another challenge had to do with expectations. The German students tended to see the virtual exhibit as their project from start to finish, with no limitations on it. But this is not the way that community-based learning works. The workshop was going to produce an exhibit that would be of use for the Wende Museum, so it had to conform to the museum’s expectations as well as its technological capabilities (the original ideas for what the exhibit might look like were quite elaborate). My students were very clear on that. They understood that they would be working in the Wende Museum to produce an exhibit for the Museum – that this was a community partnership. But they also had prior experience with service-learning and community-based learning, which is more widespread in the U.S. than in Germany, so they had a better and more realistic sense of what to expect. This disconnect between expectations and reality sometimes led to frustrations for the German students, who felt constrained by the Museum’s expectations, the structure of the workshop (that they couldn’t constantly be at the museum), the role of the LMU students, and so on. These frustrations spoke to the importance of explaining to students (and this is our responsibility as instructors) that partnerships like this, where different individuals and institutions are contributing resources, mean that those institutions have their own expectations from the project – that the students cannot just do whatever they want, that they have to work with the community partner, that community-based learning means that students have some responsibility to the community.

Next: Conclusion

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Part 3)

Part 3: The Benefits

The workshop was a great experience for the students. The American students learned a good deal about East Germany in that month, and based on the papers that they wrote for the Independent Studies course, the workshop challenged some of their stereotypes about socialist societies. Two of them have done subsequent research projects on related issues. All of the students, both American and German, learned a lot about public history – how to create historical narratives for broad consumption by a lay audience, how to stage artifacts, how to create a coherent narrative, how to deal with issues of representation, audience, and so on. They also gained valuable hands-on experience in what is both an archives and a museum. Meetings with people at the Getty and LACMA gave them more valuable insight into museum work – issues of display, programming around exhibits, issues unique to online exhibits. One of the American students subsequently went back to the Wende Museum to do research for a seminar paper about DEFA films, which he expanding into a senior thesis; he is also currently interning at the Museum and has been accepted into a doctoral program in German history, where he intends to focus on GDR history, a program he will begin after spending a year in Germany on a Fulbright. Another student, who was interning at the museum during the semester of the workshop, continued to work there as a paid staffer for some time after she graduated from LMU. Yet another is seriously considering museum work as a future career. Finally, they also learned how to work collaboratively with others and with community institutions. This sort of collaboration is an important part of the educational experience for our students, as Loyola Marymount University has a strong commitment to fostering interdisciplinarity, community-based learning, and internationalization. Partnering with the Wende Museum gave LMU students the chance to go out into the community, to do hands-on work in a museum, in the process exposing them to the interdisciplinary field of museum studies, and to work collaboratively both with students from Germany and with Wende Museum staff.

Next: The Challenges