The Smithsonian and the Army Join Forces to Revive the Monuments Men

A new force of cultural specialists will advise the military on protecting cultural treasures from bombing and looting

Monuments Men
The original Monuments Men remove the Madonna of Bruges from the Altaussee Salt Mine where the Nazi regime stored looted art treasures. Public Domain/Smithsonian Institution

By now, most people are familiar with the Monuments Men, a cadre of museum curators, art historians and archaeologists tasked by the U.S. Army with finding and safeguarding European art masterpieces from destruction as World War II raged across the continent. Now, the Army and the Smithsonian Institution, partially inspired by that effort, recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to bring back a modern version of the group.

The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, signed the agreement on Monday at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., where the personal papers and artifacts associated with the original Monuments Men are housed.

Under the new program, the Smithsonian will help train and support U.S. soldiers whose mission it is to make sure military operations do not damage or destroy culturally significant areas or artifacts during armed combat.

Sarah Cascone at artnet News reports that the Army actually began reconstituting the Monuments Men (and now Women) back in 2015, recruiting cultural specialists to join the Army Reserves. The Smithsonian has led some day-long workshops to help train these officers, but the new arrangement will be more formalized, with the centerpiece being a week-long training held in March.

“We’ll be learning from each other—these are people who already have a background and expertise as cultural heritage professionals,” Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative director Cori Wegener, who served as a Civil Affairs Arts, Monuments, and Archives officer in Iraq, tells Cascone. “It’s a really historic agreement between the Army and the Smithsonian.”

The cultural experts enrolled in the new program will be Army Reserve officers serving under the Civil Affairs branch. Since they are reservists, they will not be deployed full-time. Instead, they will be attached to military units as needed and may be deployed to conflict areas. The age limit for joining the Army reserves, currently 35, has been waived so more qualified cultural specialists can join the program.

Cascone reports the initial group of 25 cultural heritage preservation officers will be drawn from qualified officers already in the Army Reserves. But the unit may directly seek out specialists from museums and cultural institutions in the future. “There are discussions about a program involving direct commissions for candidates with the right education background and skill set who might want to join the military,” Wegener says.

The officers will be tasked with advising and assisting military commanders when executing military operations, like telling them areas to avoid during airstrikes and places where extra security may be needed to avoid looting. The officers will advise on non-combat deployments as well. For instance, after the U.S. military deployed to Haiti in 2010 to help out after a catastrophic earthquake struck, 35,000 items of cultural value were pulled from the rubble. The new officers will help coordinate similar efforts.

“In conflict, the destruction of monuments and the looting of art are not only about the loss of material things, but also about the erasure of history, knowledge, and a people’s identity,” Smithsonian ambassador-at-large Richard Kurin said at the announcement, report Ralph Blumenthal and Tom Mashberg at The New York Times. “The cooperation between the Smithsonian and the U.S. Army aims to prevent this legal and moral crime of war.”

For many, this type of unit is long overdue. Marine reserve colonel and head of the Antiquities Tracking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Matthew Bogdanos was in Baghdad in 2003 when looters ransacked the Iraq National Museum. Despite warnings from archaeologists and State Department cultural specialists, the military failed to initially secure the museum. Bogdanos set up an ad hoc team to secure the museum and helped track down about 3,000 of the stolen items, a mission he chronicles in his book Thieves of Baghdad. He tells the Times this type of military and cultural collaboration is sorely needed. “It was a great idea when I first proposed it in back in 2003, and it is even more crucial in today’s world where antiquities trafficking often funds terrorism,” he says.

The military also has some legal imperatives toward establishing this program now. Cascone reports that in 2009, the U.S. finally joined the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, which obligates signatory nations to establish and maintain units of specialist personnel to safeguard cultural property during wartime. “Each country is supposed to work to make sure their military understands their responsibility of protecting cultural heritage and to avoid damaging that heritage during armed conflict,” Wegener tells Cascone. “It’s an ethical and moral responsibility of all cultural institutions around the world.”

The U.S. military isn’t the only one thinking about cultural protection. The United Kingdom, which also recently ratified the Hague Cultural Property Convention, also established a Cultural Property Protection Unit as part of the British Army in October, 2018.

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