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 It would work better as a full semester-long course, with the historical content (the classroom part) front-loaded into the course, as a foundation for students for when they go out of the classroom, into the community, to do hands-on work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

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Part 2)

Part 2: The Exhibit Prototype

The culmination of the workshop was the collaborative production of a prototype for an online exhibition for the Wende Museum’s new website. The exhibit “Living in a Socialist City in the GDR” took as its starting point the idea that socialist urban planning, consumer culture, and the daily experiences of East German citizens could reveal a great deal about the nature of the East German state, both its ideology and its reality. The exhibit had five parts, and a pair of students, one German and one American, worked on each of the five themes. The first theme, “Marketing a Socialist City,” used official marketing, such as travel brochures, to examine the ways in which the SED promoted a specific vision of the East German city. The second theme, “Public Spaces & the Socialist City,” continued this focus on the ways in which cities – their public spaces – became sites where the SED regime promoted specific socialist ideals, whether through monumental architecture, public art works, or parades and festivals. With the third theme, the students began to shift their focus to the everyday experiences of urban inhabitants. In the section “Private Spaces,” the exhibit highlighted East German dwellings, especially the Plattenbau apartment buildings, and interior design. The fourth theme, “The Marketplace & Consumer Culture,” explored East German consumer goods and patterns of consumption, with a focus on household goods, toys, food, and music. The final section, “Social Experiences,” focused on examining how different East Germans experienced the urban world around them, by looking at, for example, questions of gender and generation. The students chose the artifacts to be highlighted, wrote the texts – in both German and English – for the exhibit, designed the visual layout, and framed how visitors would engage with the exhibit, including opportunities for visitors to share their own experiences in East Germany. At the end of the month the students presented their exhibit prototype to Wende Museum staff as well as visitors from other local museums and universities. The workshop participants continued to work on the project even after the workshop in Los Angeles came to a close, using email and Dropbox to finalize the exhibition texts.

Click here to see the PowerPoint Show that the LMU students did for their presentation at the LMU Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Next: The Benefits

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

Traditional undergraduate research in history (and German and European Studies) generally takes the form of library research resulting in a paper. Undergraduates learn how to do research and produce their own scholarship by mimicking the types of research conducted by most of their professors. But professional historians and other German and European Studies scholars are also engaged in less traditional forms of research, what many call “engaged scholarship,” research that takes them out of the archives and libraries and into their communities, to work with practitioners to produce scholarship that takes forms other than the written paper. Since most of our students will not become professional academics, it is important that we expose them to myriad forms of research and scholarship, as a means to prepare them for a variety of careers. This series will describe a collaborative, community-based, undergraduate research project that got students out of the classroom and into a local Los Angeles museum, where they worked to develop a virtual exhibit, in the process learning about both East German history and the field of public history.

Part 1: The Wende Museum Workshop

In the summer of 2010, I was approached by Cristina Cuevas-Wolf of the Wende Museum and Leo Schmieding from the University of Leipzig about my university, Loyola Marymount University, participating in a special workshop about “Museum & Material Cultures: Exhibit the GDR” at the Wende Museum. The workshop emerged out of a museum studies seminar that Schmieding had led at the University of Leipzig and was intended to give German and American students an opportunity to develop an online exhibit using the holdings of the Wende Museum.

The resulting September 2010 workshop brought together five German students from the University of Leipzig and five students from Loyola Marymount University. It focused on the history of the German Democratic Republic from 1949 to 1990, in particular the everyday life of East Germans in the cities of Berlin, Leipzig, and Halle-Neustadt, through the study of actual artifacts from East Germany. The students explored questions such as: What was the nature of socialist urban planning and the vision of the modern socialist city imagined by the East German state? How did that image correlate to the reality of life in East German cities? How did individuals and local communities (e.g., neighborhoods) interact with the state? How did people live on a daily basis – what did their living spaces look like, what goods did they consume, how did they transverse the city, what was the relationship between work and leisure, etc.? But the students did more than just study the history of East Germany; they became practicing public historians. They took part in the main debates in the field of public history – about the relationship between history and memory, notions of authority, the role and function of public history (to remember and to educate), and the role of museums in the context of public history, including questions of display, representation, and audience.

Over the course of the month, the students worked together at LMU and at the Wende Museum, selecting and researching artifacts, reading and discussing topics in GDR history, writing the texts for the online exhibit, and designing the exhibit layout. As part of the workshop, students also spoke with museum professionals at the Wende Museum, the Getty Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The five LMU students were concurrently enrolled in an Independent Studies class with me, so that they could earn academic credit for the workshop. In addition to their active participation in the workshop itself, they were required to keep a weekly log of their activities, in which they described and reflected on the questions they discussed and the artifacts they researched; to write a three-part reflective essay, in which they addressed the question of how the study of everyday urban life contributes to our understanding of the GDR, analyzed the challenges of doing public history, and reflected on how the workshop enhanced their understanding of history; and to present the project at LMU’s Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Next: The Exhibit Prototype