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.


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.

Digital Natives, WikiResearch and Lady Gaga’s Interactive Jewel Case

By Todd Herzog

University of Cincinnati

(Posted by forum moderator Todd Heidt)

Every fall, as the new academic year begins, countless articles and blog posts remind us that the incoming crop of first year students came of age in a different historical era than those of us who are teaching them. The granddaddy of them all is The Mindset List, which Ron Nief and Tom McBride of Beloit College have published in various forms since 1997. Indeed, this old-timer is old enough to remember when these lists were disseminated as forwarded e-mails! The list is always a collection of pop cultural references, mostly drawn from the adolescences of the incoming students and the adolescences of the Baby Boom generation. This year’s list, for example, reminds us that we ought to avoid references to Dean Martin or Windows 95, as these will go over our poor students’ heads. We should instead gain our street cred (is this still a term I can use? better check the list) by dropping references to Lady Gaga and the movie Chicken Run.

As silly as these lists are (their fundamental premise is that the sum of our entire historical knowledge consists of events that occurred between our tenth and eighteenth birthdays), they do remind us of one thing: experiences and expectations change over time. The important point of the Mindset List is not to remind us that we need to avoid references to Don Shula or floppy discs. Rather, it should remind us that, as we work to educate the class of 2016, we need to make sure that we understand that they grew up with a fundamentally different means of interacting with information.

Our students’ generation is often referred to by the term digital natives. Unlike us digital immigrants, they grew up in cyberspace. They grew up in an era in which information has always been fundamentally interactive. In a piece that I wrote reacting to the announcement of the first iPad, I noted that:

Our students—until further notice let’s just call them Generation i—have been writing on each others’ Facebook walls, filming video responses to YouTube videos, and assembling their avatars with friends and strangers for raids in World of Warcraft for years now. That student sitting in the back row with his smart phone in front of his face isn’t texting his friends during your lecture; he’s blurring the boundaries between the production and reception of content.

What does all of this have to do with undergraduate research? Well, one of the responses to the casual relationship that these students have with information might be to train them in traditional methods of locating and evaluating resources, as Lynn Marie Kutch nicely argued in a column on this site. I agree that it is important to demonstrate to them that things can be done differently than they had assumed and to introduce them to the still-valid rigorous practices of good old-fashioned research.

But the reverse is also true: we should allow them to teach us that things can be done differently than we had assumed. I learned to research in an era of scarce information. The first problem to overcome was how to track it down. Our digitally native students grew up in an era of abundant information. Their first problem is to learn how to manage and evaluate it. I grew up in an era of knowledge hierarchies in which relatively few had the opportunity to disseminate knowledge. Our digitally native students grew up in an era of democratization of knowledge. We can learn from each other. They can learn that perhaps someone’s opinions expressed in the comments of a blog post might not carry the same weight as those of someone who has devoted years to studying the issue. We can learn that perhaps dynamic, free-flowing knowledge has some advantages.

In a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about research in the information age, I identified four central principles of what I call WikiResearch:

#1: We no longer need to concentrate on teaching students how to track down scarce information; rather, we need to teach them how to manage an abundance of information.

#2: The democratization of knowledge is not only a challenge to researchers; it is one of the greatest positive developments in the age of WikiResearch.

#3: We need to make our publications more public—and that means putting them on the open internet.

#4: Most of the fundamental principles of good, scholarly research remain unchanged.

Even though, when I developed these principles, the class of 2017 was still in Middle School and Reading Rainbow was still on television, I think that they still hold. As we engage in research with these digital natives, let’s remember that research can and should be—as Lady Gaga once tweeted—”an interactive jewel case.”