Kyrill Kunakhovich / History

Every year, in almost every course I teach, I take my students to look at the Berlin Wall, part of which now stands by Alderman Library. Afterwards, we return to the classroom and pass around small pieces of the Wall that hawkers sell as souvenirs. This is always students’ favorite activity: nothing compares to seeing, touching, holding a piece of history. Physical objects can transport us into another time and place; they inspire us, provoke us, force us to ask new questions.

My Dream Idea is to create a small museum, one devoted to daily life on the other side of the Berlin Wall. East Germany produced an immense array of household objects, alldesigned to foster a new, communist way of life. Since the fall of the Wall, however, most of them have become household trash; today, they are sold as kitsch on internet sites like eBay. An East German typewriter can be had for $50; a radio set for $30; plates, clothes, toys, books go for a few dollars each. All of these objects tell a story – about the people who used them as well as the dictatorship in which they lived.

I plan to work with a group of students to assemble and display a collection of East German artifacts. I will recruit 10-15 volunteers, drawn principally from my Fall semester course on The Fall of Communism. Meeting monthly over pizza, we will discuss what our collection should look like and the narrative it will tell. I will invitee guest speakers, both experts on East Germany and scholars with curatorial experience. With their help, we will determine objects to include, how to organize them, and what captions to add.

Towards the end of the Fall semester, we will start to buy items online. We will discuss bigger purchases as a group, while giving everyone a small budget to make their own choices. As the objects arrive, we will catalog them and research their provenance. For this part of the project, I plan to involve students from my Spring semester seminar on Life in Dictatorships, which includes a section about communist Eastern Europe. Working in groups, students will choose an object from our collection and try to find out how it was made, used, and represented in East German society. They will write display captions as well as longer “catalog” pieces – which could go on a website to accompany the exhibition.

Next Spring, we will display our collection. Ideally, we will negotiate space in the library, museum, or Special Collections; failing that, we could use the History Department’s space in Nau Hall, or even a vacant office. We will open the exhibition to UVA students and faculty, and potentially to the general public. I will make it part of the syllabus for my Spring semester lecture on Nationalism in Europe, and it will be useful for other courses in History and German. Besides viewing and reading about the objects on display, visitors will be allowed to touch them, pick them up, leaf through them, garnering a direct sensory experience of everyday life in the GDR.

The objects from the exhibition will remain in the University’s possession, so they will be accessible to other students in years to come. Future classes will be able to view them, reorganize them, write new captions – and even perhaps add to the collection.



Pizza for planning sessions, at $100 for 10 meetings: $1,000

Budget for acquisitions: $2,000

Total expenses: $3,000