D. Cull, Conflicted thoughts on the Monuments Men, e-conservation Journal 2, 2014, pp. 6-9
Available online 28 May 2014
doi: 10.18236/econs2.201402

Conflicted thoughts on the Monuments Men

By Daniel Cull

Sixty years ago the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was developed by the international community in order to prevent a repeat of the acts of cultural genocide and destruction witnessed in the Second World War. To this day the UK has not ratified this convention; despite assurances in 2004 that this was “a priority”, and despite cross party support, multi-Departmental support, and support from the Armed Services! Writing in a recent ICOM newsletter [2] Fiona Macalister urged ICOM members to support a Blue Shield campaign to push their local MP’s to seek parliamentary time to discuss the bill, and ratify the convention. In a recent Getty Newsletter [3] there was an interesting article about the work of the Blue Shield in the run up to, and after, the invasion of Iraq, and their efforts to minimise damage to the cultural heritage of Iraq. The article reports that increasingly NATO militaries have come to recognise the “force multiplier” potential of cultural property protection (CPP) and have begun to incorporate some of Blue Shield’s recommendation for training and policies into their strategies, subsequently utilized in Libya, Mali, and Syria. I suspect all this interest in CPP within conservation literature is in no small part thanks to a Hollywood movie about the Blue Shield’s predecessors “The Monuments Men”.

The movie follows Lt Frank Stokes (loosely based on the famous conservator George L. Stout) and a hapless crew of conservators, art historians and assorted others as they traipse through war torn Europe during the closing stages of the Second World War on the hunt for art looted by the Nazis. This romp of a movie gives us pause to consider the question of whether art and culture are worth dying for. Moreover it demands of those of us working in heritage to consider the role of our technical assistance to the military-industrial-complex today. The story of the Monuments Men is quite fascinating and it is unsurprising that a dramatic retelling would make its way into Hollywood. The potential for destruction of art  in the Second World War has in fact been the inspiration for storylines in other movies such   as the 1966 film Is Paris Burning? and the 1964 The Train, but none until now have focussed exclusively on the role of the Monuments Men themselves. This movie is produced, directed, and stars George Clooney and is based on the nonfiction book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel. The movie is based on true events; Edsel however also co-produced a documentary film, The Rape of Europa, based on the book The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn Nicholas. In 2007 Edsel also founded the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art [4]. The Monuments Men was the nickname by which the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied Army (MFAA) were known. They were established with the purpose of protecting cultural property in all the conflict zones of the Second World War. The group at its height had about 400 service-members and civilians, drawn from 13 countries, working with the military to safeguard cultural monuments and to locate and return art and other items of cultural significance stolen or hidden for safekeeping. They spent the closing year of the war seeking out over 1,000 troves containing an estimated 5 million pieces of artwork and cultural items stolen from wealthy Jews, museums, universities, and religious institutions. Although the main group was dis-solved in June 1946, when the State Department took over its duties, for six years after the end of the war a smaller group, of around 60 Monuments Men continued to scour Europe for artwork that remained missing.

Ghent webThe Ghent Altarpiece recovered from the Altaussee salt mine at the end of World War II.

The film opens with a fictionalised re-telling of the foundation of the unit, so sadly you do not get to see an onscreen version of one of my favourite archaeologists, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler, for in real life it was his concern for Leptis Magna that led to the formation of the Monuments Men, instead we open in the wake of the destruction of Monte Cassino as the Allies are gaining on the Axis powers in Italy, art historian Frank Stokes (soon to become Lt Stokes) persuades the US President that the art treasures and cultural heritage of “Western Civilisation” must be saved if victory is to have any meaning at all. He is tasked with assembling a team “the Monuments Men” to undertake this task. A team of seven, presumably channelling Kurosawa, is assembled and after basic training they undergo a series of misadventures across Europe to protect and search for missing art, particularly the Van Eyck altarpiece looted from Ghent Cathedral, and a statue of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. To tell these stories, many of which at their core contain elements of how they occurred in real life, the film takes on many of the tropes of Hollywood at war; drawing on the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, The Dirty Dozen, Three Kings, and even a little Full Metal Jacket, leaning heavily on the comedic side of these movies and steering clear of the violent side of war, in fact there’s barely more than a couple of bullets fired throughout. To my mind the most interesting, and sadly underexplored, character is that of Claire Simone, played by Cate Blanchett, an ex-curator who in occupied Europe is forced to oversee the transportation of stolen art for the Nazi’s and secretly keeps a record of it all for the Maquis. Simone’s meticulous notes are perhaps the finest examples of the heroism of great collections management ever submitted to celluloid; and a fine example of how resistance to oppressive regimes comes in a variety of forms. In the film, and in real life, Simone initially refuses to give over this information to the Allies seeing them as just another conquering army, although in the end she relents, her view that the Allies advance across Europe was not a libera-tion but a new occupation is a lesson that has multiple parallels in today's war ravaged world. It is also worth noting that it was Simone’s work with the Maquis, and not the professionalised-militarised art-experts that was ultimately responsible for the majority of the acts of recovery.

Eisenhower web
General Dwight D. Eisenhower inspects stolen artwork
in the Merkers salt mines.

This is not a film that shrouds its ideas in subtlety or nuance, periodically Lt Stokes appears on the radio with a broadcast ostensibly to the Monuments Men, however, his philosophical consideration of their actions are clearly intended to break the fourth wall. The repetition of the films positive assertion that is worth dying for art and culture (or their oft-used phrase “civilisation”) was, for me at least, uncomfortable; ultimately in the film two monuments men (in typical Hollywood fashion the English and French characters) are killed making this a non-rhetorical question. I was also struck by how the Monuments Men are portrayed as enthusiastically throwing themselves into the war effort. I’d like to think that as cultural heritage professionals we would today be more reluctant for our field to become part of the war effort in the service of one side in an armed conflict.  However, it is clear that the military technical services industry and the ideology that drives it has made significant inroads into the heritage field, illustrated by the AIC adopting the hashtag #TodaysHeroes [5] to discuss the Monuments Men, clearly demonstrating that to their members the confluence of art conservation and militarism is a positive, heroic endeavour, to be replicated today. In fact in the Getty article cited earlier the author was almost indicating the possibility for heritage professionals to be involved in target selection: “with cooperation between heritage professionals and the military and careful targeting the military targets were completely destroyed with minimal damage to the heritage site” [1, 15]. For me this suggests that the line of technical assistance might be tipping too far. Other professional fields have shown that it is possible to withdraw support for the military-industrial-complex. The major body representing anthropologists for example, in considering the role of Human Terrain Systems [6], and citing ethical concerns stated that such work “can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology” [7].  

It’s fascinating to see that 60 years from the Hague convention, and 70 years from the end of the Second World War and dissolution of the Monuments Men, as a profession we still have to be concerned with protecting monuments, archives, and museum collections from the ravages of war. It seems to me that perhaps our chosen method, asking wars, and those that make them, to be a bit more careful, might not be working. I can not help thinking that the lesson I have taken away from this movie is that protection without also working towards ending wars and militarism is a futile task. So I would suggest that ICOM’s call to support Blue Shield although worthy is a tiny first step, and would ask could not, and should not, we dream a little bigger?

In closing, I should say although I have no interest in giving this film a star rating, it is the best conservation themed war movie you are likely to see this year!


[1] H. Zinn, Historian as Citizen, in H. Zinn, The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, New York, 1997, pp. 509-515

[2] F. Macalister, The Hague Convention, the UK and The Monuments Men, ICOM-UK e-Newsletter, 2014

[3] P. Stone, War and Heritage: Using Inventories to Protect Cultural Property, Conservation Perspectives: The GCI Newsletter, Fall 2013, pp. 13-15

[4] http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/ (accessed 29 April 2014)

[5] American Institute for Conservation, The Monuments Men and Modern-Day Heroes, http://www.conservation-us.org/about-us/press-room/the-monuments-men-and-modern-day-heroes (accessed 29 April 2014)

[6] Human Terrain System, http://humanterrain system.army.mil/ (accessed 29 April 2014)

[7] American Anthropological Association Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC), Final Report on The Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program, Submitted to the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association, October 14, 2009, 
http://www.aaanet.org/cmtes/commissions/ ceaussic/upload/ceaussic_hts_final_report.pdf (accessed 29 April 2014)

Daniel Cull
Preventive Conservator
Historic Royal Palaces
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Daniel Cull is interested in Preventive Conservation, Ethnographic Conservation, and Conservation Theory. Daniel has worked at institutions in the UK and USA, he currently supervises Preventive Conservation activities at Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, and Banqueting House, Whitehall. Daniel trained at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. He has served as a board member of e-conservation magazine and on the board of the Western Association for Art Conservation. His recent research interests have focused around Web 2.0, Wikipedia, and the ethical implications of the emerging social media landscape for conservators. He has also published on post-colonial ethics, Native American contemporary art, and collaborative or consultation-led conservation.