Protecting the Priceless

How one retired Army Reserve Major taught soldiers to save artworks and antiquities during wartime

Retired Army Reserve Major Corine Wegener remembers well the April 2003 day when the news broke that the Iraq Museum in Baghdad had been looted. She was then an Assistant Curator in the Department of Architecture, Design, Decorative Arts, Crafts and Sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and so far as anybody knew, the only arts curator in the U.S. military. Her ten-month deployment to the Iraq Museum in 2003-2004 convinced Wegener that the US military needed to update and improve training related to cultural property.

In 2004 she co-authored the U.S. Army's new cultural property training manual, and in 2006, she founded the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, the American branch of the UNESCO-affiliated organization chartered to protect cultural property in wartime ("it's like the Red Cross for culture"). Under its auspices, she and others have begun providing training to U.S. Army units prior to deployment. Wegener lives in Minneapolis, where she works as an Associate Curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She retired from the Army in 2005.

Some people think of cultural property as this nice thing we think about after the war is over.
One of the things that we try to get across is that the destruction of the cultural property of a particular ethnic group is often sort of a harbinger of ethnic cleansing of a people. Cultural property really does stand for something. It's a weapon of war, just like anything else.

Do you get the sense that this idea is accepted in the US military?
They get that. Dealing with cultural property is an Army Civil Affairs issue. It goes back to World War II. But unlike World War II, we don't have the expertise to deal with it. Meaning, the Army doesn't have a draft, so you don't have art historians, and museum curators, architects, and archaeologists in the army to whom you can say—"you, come over here." They have to join up. But guess what? They don't.

To that end, you co-authored the Army's new cultural property training manual, and now you're providing in-person cultural property training. What's the reaction?
At the [Army] command level, they fully recognize that even though they don't have any experts, cultural property is still their responsibility. Even if they don't know how to do it.

The manual and the training program are both introduced by lengthy histories of the Army's involvement in cultural property issues. Why?
Because they [the soldiers] don't know it. Army Civil Affairs guys did some really amazing things in World War II. Teams were put together to save the cultural heritage of Western Europe. First, to develop targeting maps, to keep bombs from the cultural property. And later, as they began to find all of the property that had been looted by the Nazis, as they began to march toward Berlin, something had to be done with it. This is not a girly-girl thing to do.

There's a practical side, too.
One of the tasks during World War II was to teach fellow soldiers why you don't buy antiquities. And if you're on guard duty and you find antiquities sticking out of the ground – which is quite likely there [Iraq]—don't pick them up and carry them off and try to take them home. Not only is it illegal, it's just wrong. We try to get them to try and think about how we would feel if people came to our country and did it to them.

What about conservation?
During one training session, Barbara Roberts [a conservator at the Frick Collection in New York] talked about conservation, the types of cultural property, proper documentation, handling and storage. This is the 'first, do no harm' principle that we teach. For example, don't pick up a wet painting by the top and watch the frame fall to the ground. These are based on actual scenarios where we did it wrong in Iraq.

Archaeological sites are interesting because they really conflict with military strategy.
Snipers think they're great cover. Because berms are what you build up to shoot behind. Or a berm is what you bulldoze so you'll have a clear field of fire.

But that berm might be an ancient Assyrian wall.
More than likely it is. You try not to let cultural property get destroyed. But it's all subject to military necessity. You are allowed to do it, under international law, but you better have a good reason.

How quickly is this recognition filtering into the Army?
The manual was released in 2004, it took a while for it to get distributed, and let's face it, cultural property is not ultra-high on the priority list. The awareness of cultural property as an important aspect of the mission—that if you don't pay attention to it, there can be negative ramifications back home and in the theater of operations—that's come around.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.