Feature: Powerful messages

Feature: Powerful messages

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Couple opens museum to share large collection of international propaganda

The Museum of International Propaganda features a permanent collection, as well as special exhibitions, of propaganda posters, paintings, sculptures and items from multiple countries.

By Flora Tsapovsky

While Lilka and Tom Areton didn’t quite time the opening of their museum dedicated to propaganda to highlight the current zeitgeist, the freshly opened Museum of International Propaganda in San Rafael couldn’t come at a better time: Election year. Bright, inviting and highly educational, Marin County’s newest museum is all about the stuff that once made elections victories and regime changes, and couldn’t be more poignant in 2016.

“Propaganda is the calculated manipulation of information designed to shape public opinion and behavior to predetermined ends, as desired by the propagandist. It is usually emotional and repetitive, either designed to increase enthusiasm for a proposed utopian world or to escalate rage and hatred against a designated enemy,” the longtime Marin County residents, parents of three and avid travellers, explain on the museum’s website. “Subjectivity, disinformation, exaggeration, and the outright falsification of facts are the hallmarks of propaganda practitioners.” Sound familiar?

The two founders come from different backgrounds, but their curiosity on the topic, as well as a penchant for globetrotting, are great commonalities. Lilka was born in the U.S., and Tom in Communist Czechoslovakia, his parents well familiar with the Nazi regime. “I met Tom, freshly arrived from Czechoslovakia, in 1969 at the International Center in NYC,” Lilka recalls. “I was a volunteer there, helping as a receptionist.”

Tom, who studied at the Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, and, later in the U.S., took up film study at NYU and Law and Economics in San Francisco, “was born in Czechoslovakia by a cosmic error and always felt he was an American,” Lilka jokes. She has a Ph.D. from San Francisco’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. The academic background led the two to start a student exchange nonprofit in 1977, currently named Cultural Homestay International, and based in San Anselmo.

“We are still running it,” Lilka says. “In the 1970s we happened to host a Japanese high school girl and fell in love with her and with the whole idea of homestay. It refreshed our faith in mankind’s future.”

In 1980 the couple went to Japan and started bringing school groups on summer programs to California. By 1987, they brought almost 12,000 students from Japan to the U.S. in one year.

“We still have that amount coming yearly all over the United States from 104 different countries,” Lilka says. The students arrive under different student program umbrellas, from Au Pairs to the summer Work & Travel Program. In a world of Skype and social networks, such vocation sounds almost nostalgic, but it shouldn’t be. “It has been a lifetime of inspiration and affection for people from scores of different cultures and countries,” Lilka says. “Human contact in a personal setting builds bridges of deep affection and goodwill.”

Hosting students naturally encouraged extensive travelling for networking and crafting partnerships. Lilka has been to Asia, Western Europe, South America and Africa, and frequently visited Russia, a propaganda generator second to none. “The great changes there are both inspiring and horrific,” she laments. “The transition from communism to capitalism has not been easy for most people.”

The couple’s collection of propaganda artifacts slowly grew in the process, and spans more than 104 countries.

“I went to Russia in 1960 at the age of 20 and got the shock of my life when I saw that the economy was not producing, that the population was terrified of the police and where the propaganda was everywhere trying to convince the people that everything was great,” Lilka recalls. “Both Tom and I were fascinated by the power of messages that would turn out to be false hopes for people.”

The museum idea crystallized a few years ago, when the couple visited North Korea, Berlin and Cuba. “We decided that we should share our collection with others who might find it educational and enjoy it, too,” Lilka says. Next came the search for a space, the gathering of display walls and the setup. A Marin location, rather than a San Francisco one, was crucial. “I could not commute to San Francisco every day at my age,” she explains. “Also, Marin’s audience is quite sophisticated, so we expected a lot of interest.”

In May of this year, the Museum of International Propaganda opened its door to the public, as a nonprofit. It operates Wednesday through Saturday, offering a glimpse into the world of propaganda with posters, postcards, texts and other materials. Why a nonprofit? “Nonprofit status encourages people to donate

The collection of propaganda at The Museum of International Propaganda has taken the founders more than 30 years to compile. Photo courtesy of The Museum of International Propaganda.
The collection of propaganda at The Museum of International Propaganda has taken the founders more than 30 years to compile. Photo courtesy of The Museum of International Propaganda.

valuable propaganda items to the museum,” Lilka says, adding that charging entrance fees would limit the number of visitors. “We have never heard of a museum that made money. We derive no income from the museum; it is purely a hobby. However, we derive a lot of pleasure from educating the public, especially the students.”

Plans for the museum are exciting—the two have already screened the bittersweet comedy Goodbye Lenin!, and will host future movie nights, as well as guest speakers and lecturers who will lead debates. A Free Speech Café is also in the works, and will open in a few months—an image on the museum’s website suggests that instead of the customary heart or smiley design in the foam, the cafe’s latte might have the face of Cuban superstar Che Guevara. Indeed, humor is an inevitable flipside of propaganda, with exhibits, according to Lilka, ranging from “the funny to the creepy.” In the creepy category are  vilification posters  reading things like, “Alaska, death trap for the Jap.” On the funny side, Chinese Cultural Revolution and Iranian “brazenly anti-American” posters can be found.

America herself is no slouch when it comes to bold and brazen, especially when it came to foreign communist leaders. “We have some great American propaganda, like, ‘This is your America—keep it free,’ which shows us a series of posters of the U.S. in the late ’40s,” Lilka says. “This America may be long gone.”

Some artifacts from the collection had to be filtered out; “Horrible posters about minorities, religions, cultures and individuals,” Lilka says. “I had to include some of these types of propaganda because such posters are key ingredients in effective propaganda, designed to frighten people, blame others and keep the people looking the other way from the real problems facing the nation. But I kept this part of the collection to a minimum.”

The public response, so far, has been welcoming. “Almost everyone has been entirely excited and delighted to see our images and to read the explanations of what they are looking at,” says Lilka. “Our visitors are well-traveled, quite well-educated and curious. Many are older adults who have lived through a long century of many changes. We are anxious to meet them again at our forums.”

Do they find the whole thing highly relevant, as well? “Almost everyone coming in suggests I put up some faces and some propaganda from our elections today,” Lilka says. “Our elections are propagandists’ bread and butter.” And while the museum’s exhibits are limited to the political propaganda of the 20th century, “Propaganda and propagandists are active and well all around the world and in every country. The propagandist will have succeeded, when people, toeing the propaganda line think they are acting of their own free will,” she adds.

The perfect preventive remedy is, according to Lilka, “asking ourselves every day, ‘What is this person, government, or powerful interest trying to sell me?’ We need to pretend to think just the opposite so that we can more objectively find the facts of the situations and not just justify our already held beliefs.”

Now this would be a nice addition to your morning mindfulness practice, from now until November 8.   

The Museum of International Propaganda, 1000 Fifth Ave., San Rafael; 415/310-1173; propagandamuseum.net.

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