Say Farewell to the ‘Kings’: Cold War Relics To Leave Grounds

July 20, 2023 By Alice Berry, Alice Berry,

After more than nine years on Grounds of the University of Virginia, four panels of the Berlin Wall are set to come down in the coming weeks.

The rare pieces of Cold War history, called “Kings of Freedom,” made clear the stark division between communist East Germany and democratic West Germany during the 45 years of Berlin’s partition. As it became clear that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse in 1989, people began to dismantle the wall as an act of peaceful protest. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the wall fell, and Germany reunified.

The Cold War relics arrived on Grounds in 2014, courtesy of Robert and MeiLi Hefner, right around the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Originally, the panels were to be displayed for a little more than a year, but the Hefners extended the agreement in subsequent years.

Now, the University community has a little more than a week before the panels return to the Hefners. Their removal is set for the week of July 31.

Related Story

Side photo of Robert Hefner standing behind a podium in front of a section of the Berlin wall
Robert Hefner addressed students as part of the yearlong sequence of programs that accompanied the panels’ arrival.

“We’re very sorry to see it go, but we’re very grateful that we’ve had it for nearly nine years,” said Jody Kielbasa, UVA’s vice provost for the arts.

The panels are arresting. One side, which faced democratic West Berlin, depicts a brightly colored king who meets the viewer’s gaze directly. Beside him is a monochromatic king whose crown acts as a blindfold, rendering him unable to see the suffering that surrounds him. The artist, Dennis Kaun, spray-painted the wall under the cover of night, as his art would have been considered vandalism.

The eastern side of the panels, which faced communist East Berlin, remains concrete-gray and pocked with bullet holes.

The panels “pop,” Kielbasa said, because the modern pieces of art contrast with the traditional architecture on Grounds.

“It’s an interesting counterpoint to a very classically designed university,” University building official Ben Hays said.

The display’s location – roughly 200 yards from the Rotunda and 100 yards from the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library – put the panels in direct conversation with the copy of the Declaration of Independence in the special collections library. That’s because both the Declaration of Independence and the Berlin Wall are symbols of freedom, Kielbasa said.

“It was a perfect place for its time here,” Kielbasa said.

The installation has become part of the student experience.

“It’s a nice reminder that we’re situated within a larger world,” Cyrena Matingou, a rising fourth-year student, said. “I was using it as a landmark, like ‘I’ll meet you at the Berlin Wall,’ and students at other schools do not have that opportunity.”

New Proof We Can Use Nature To Heal Nature, Learn More
New Proof We Can Use Nature To Heal Nature, Learn More

When the panels arrived, a year of programming commemorated the 25th anniversary of the wall’s fall. More events accompanied the 30th anniversary. Kielbasa said every year, he sees students posing for graduation photos in front of the panels, and there was even a Halloween costume based on the kings spotted at the 2014 Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn event.

There are no immediate plans for another installation on the site.

"We’ll likely use that site again, just not immediately,” Kielbasa said.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications