We Went to a Cold War Museum on a Hot Day — and Now We Know Why Media Is the Message
By Annie Goodman + Ryan Hynes
LA-based copywriting duo with two voices, two perspectives, and one beating heart for words that matter.
The logo for the Wende Museum of the Cold War is a clever design feat. The adjacent triangles stacked upon each other suggest a duality of ticking time.
“Two hourglasses,” a front-desk docent spouted (kindly) at us.
“Thank you!” we said (kindly!), slipping out the front door, recognizing that our willingness to chat about the intersection of design and war on a Sunday afternoon had also reached its final grain of sand. We walked into the hot LA sun.
Annie wondered how no budding tech company had grabbed up the logo yet. The more you think about it, the more its brilliance emerges: The premise is efficient. The tension is palpable. The red is… well, intentional. All in all, it shadows a lingering realization about the superpower itself — that visual communication is everything.
Here’s what we picked up from the past on a free (free, we tell you!) retrospective of Cold War relics, culture, and design from both sides of the wall.
Why we went to the Wende
R: I’ll level with you: we thought this was a museum for propaganda. As writers and marketers and do-it-if-we-can graphic designers, we have a slight fascination with messaging and the way of the word.
I’m also a bit of a Cold War history buff (sorry that this sounds like a dating profile), so I hoped to see some interesting relics and learn some new tidbits. What I didn’t expect was to be so short-circuited by a relenting thought: “Maybe this museum isn’t about propaganda. Maybe this museum is propaganda!”
My thought wasn’t fair, or true. The Wende provides an objective lens on the history between the USSR and the US, and their tactics in honing the narrative of the time. Yet, spend enough time listening to a tour guide describe the power of persuasion, and you start to feel like everyone’s using their persuasive powers on you.
A: Unlike Ryan, I’m not exactly a Cold War buff. Okay, I’m just not that into the Cold War, period. I blame my Eastern European roots and the fact that there’s something about the words “cold” and “war” that just don’t wet the palate!
However, I have to say my impressions of what I thought I’d learn at the Wende were totally wrong.
I went in thinking that we were going to be given a start-to-finish historical lesson on Russian propaganda, the Berlin Wall, and all things Bay of Pigs. Instead, the exhibition was quite integrative, accessible, and highly tactile. Rather than a drawn out, line-by-line explanation of “what happened when” or “fact here, fact there,” we were able to deduce, synthesize, and understand the historical context through real objects that were representative (and utilized) during that time.
Do I plan on going to Russia anytime soon post-exhibition? Probably not, but that is not Wende’s fault!!
What we saw.
R: I was most struck by a collection of Polish zine-like leaflets that resistance movements published underground. The lead story on one of them was “Kryzys czy system?” “(Crisis or system?)”.
I wondered how they even produced the leaflets, and was reminded that organizing for a movement wasn’t always as easy as posting to Instagram!
That said, there were also Instagram-y pieces. Or rather, the relics and furniture and artwork all carried with it a vintage sense that felt especially current. Our tour guide explained that minimalist ’70s aesthetics that were originally constructed out of necessity in the USSR became ironically chic in the US decades later.
There were modern art pieces inspired by the Cold War era, but produced as recently as last year. We saw collections that merged the space race with the COVID crisis. We also saw a graffiti exhibit by @muckrock that gave a feel of the Berlin Wall. (It was made for the museum’s first ever teen night!)
A: After checking in, we were swept into a (very audible) tour. Personally, I was stunned to see so many Cold War enthusiasts of all shapes, colors, and sizes on a Sunday at 3pm, but they were present and engaged, nodding and gasping all the way through.
I was most perplexed and intrigued by a Flea Market setup that our diaphragm-heavy tour guide showed us. On the table were personal photo albums, trinkets, war pins, typewriters, and even puppets that would be sold at flea markets in the US post-Cold War.
It turns out that many household and consumer items were discarded from people who had lived through socialism, as those items had complicated sentiments attached and those people finally had access to more standard goods. As a result, flea markets became the go-to dumping ground for these products, which semi flipped the script on how on-lookers and collectors felt about the socialist movement in general.
As people coveted these items more and more, impressions of the socialist era turned and started to evoke more feelings of nostalgia than distaste — increasing the overall prestige and cost of these keepsakes altogether.
How we felt.
R: The medium is the message! Almost everything was dominated by the umbrella theme of “communication.” The primary mural in the space, for example, which realistically captures an array of landmarks across the USSR, centers around a telecommunications tower. It’s an allusion to the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, from the Ghent Altarpiece (recently restored and Twitter-shamed) which centers around a fountain.
So, yeah, I think that is how I felt. I felt like in a life in which we, humans, all gather around the fountain, that fountain is actually a telecommunication tower.
A: I don’t think you can walk through a Cold War museum without feeling uneasy to some extent.
As an American who was raised in the age of idealism (the 90s), it’s easy to and far from those who have gone through such incredibly divisive and controlling times such as the Cold War.
However, given our own political climate, it’s very easy to draw more similarities than differences.
In the modern era, we’re all left feeling like we have so much agency over how we receive our media or what we take from the information we’re given. Yet, the way we receive and perceive media today is somehow more pernicious. Do we even have agency over what we’re “served” at all?
I’m not quite sure.
What we wondered.
R: The term “Soviet Realism” was thrown around pretty contentiously during our tour. I wondered about what constitutes realism, and if the attempt to capture anything for real is perhaps misguided from the get-go. If we all see things from our own point of view, aren’t we never seeing the same thing?
A: Real talk: there was a Russian woman (who I deemed to be a hired antagonist for the loud tour guide even though Ryan told me she was honestly just a patron). For every point the tour guide made, she managed to counteract his point, providing a real-life perspective and historical context that he hadn’t accounted for.
In many ways, it was fun to watch, but in many other ways, it made me ponder how much of art, history, and information in general is lacking the full context. How much of what we have learned in our schooling and education is piecemeal?
What is the real source of truth when it comes to our own history? I know I might never have the answers, but it brings up a true feeling of realizing how small each of us are in this world.
What we’re inspired to do now.
R: So much of our work days are spent trying to convince someone else of a certain semblance of reality — a verbal, written accounting for what’s happening, what should be happening, etc. For me the Wende shined a spotlight on how history is shaped by our communications, and how consensus is rare.
Context matters, but context is really hard to predict. And of course everything looks very different in hindsight.
To that point, I’m inspired to write and create with fewer reservations. I’m inspired to offer what I think is valuable, but not over accommodate my audience. I guess I’m inspired to throw some paint at the (Berlin) wall!
Oh, and chess. I’m inspired to play a lot more chess.
A: I’m feeling pretty liberated by the existentialism that arose at Wende (and by the man we encountered on our way out — ”Marty” — who managed to list every Cold War-inspired film after 1965).
But Marty aside, I have tended to lean towards judgement when it comes to how certain historical events have made me feel about certain people or places in the present. Getting a greater understanding of how the war impacted the citizens of Russia and Germany respectively, gives me greater empathy and clarity about those who I have othered so quickly.
I might be inspired to watch The Hunt for Red October (Marty’s suggestion), but I’ll add it to the list once I finish watching Made of Honor (again).