With today’s national release of the George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, it is only appropriate to discuss the heroic men and women portrayed by the film’s all-star cast and to ask: Where are today’s Monuments Men and Women?
I attended a conference this fall hosted by The Lawyer’s Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, Fordham Law School, and the American Society of International Law (ASIL) entitled “The Monuments Men, Social Media, the Law and Cultural Heritage.” I had seen a trailer for the movie and was excited to see it in theaters, but I had managed to fail to make the connection between the conference’s title and the film’s. Not only was Robert Edsel, the author of the book The Monuments Men and the founder of the Monuments Men Foundation, in attendance, but numerous experts in all fields relating to looting were present as well. I was enlightened on both the World War II initiatives against looting and on modern day efforts to continue the same line of work as those heroes. So before you see the film, or don’t, here are a few reflections on its tale and others that are similar.
While the film focuses on a handful of key figures of the operation, the Monuments Men were actually a group of approximately 345 men and women from 13 different nations. They were experts in the arts and volunteered their services to protect cultural heritage from the destruction of World War II, but they did not act alone. Behind these heroes was The Roberts Commission that reported the invaluable lists and maps on the location of heritage sites and artwork across Europe that were prepared by the American Council of Learned Societies and The Harvard Group to military units. As a collective unit they were able to return more than five million cultural pieces that had been seized by the Nazi regime.
The members of this task force, officially known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA), performed an unprecedented and overwhelming task, but the memory of their acts drifted from people’s memories. Until, that is, Robert M. Edsel took interest in the subject and created the Monuments Men Foundation For the Preservation of Art to unearth the stories of the individuals who saved masterpieces whose existence we now take for granted. Despite the title of his foundation and book, and Clooney’s adaptation, the “Monuments Men” were, as mentioned, also women. While they were far fewer in number, they were vital to MFAA’s efforts. As Tom Mashberg states in his article “Not all Monuments Men Were Men,” these women “were dedicated scholars and at times notable heroes.”
That description is most apt for Dr. Monica Hanna, who is a truly a modern day Monuments Woman and winner of the SAFE Beacon Award. Like most of the men and women who served in the MFAA section, Dr. Hanna does not have military training, but that hasn’t stop her from putting her life on the line for her work. It is not likely that Dr. Hanna’s efforts will be forgotten due to her strong social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and in the news, but it is important to help share as many stories as possible. Cultural heritage cannot afford to wait another fifty years before someone else is inspired to take interest.
Along with Dr. Hanna, other modern day Monuments Men and Women include anthropologists and cultural resource managers employed by the U.S. Army to enter into war zones and protect or recover pieces from institutions like the National Museum of Iraq. The Smithsonian Institution experts who train the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on identifying looted cultural heritage items should also be included. The stories of these men and women, unfortunately, go largely unreported. It is important for other advocates of the protection of cultural heritage to call attention to their efforts and give them the recognition they deserve.
Who do you nominate as your global Monuments Men and Women?