A partnership between the U.S. Army and the Smithsonian Institution is reviving the legacy of the World War II–era “monuments men,” the Allied officers tasked with safeguarding cultural items against harm or theft by the Nazis.
Today, the Smithsonian and the U.S. Army are training a new generation of officers, men and women, to stop wartime plunder of cultural heritage. Their mission has expanded to also save artwork threatened by natural disasters.
Civilian and military expertise
Art historian/curator Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and a former Army Reserve officer who served in Iraq, and Texas-based artist Scott DeJesse, an Army Reserve colonel who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, together designed the new program. The two oversaw a recent training session for the new recruits at the National Museum of the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. (Other training was conducted at the Smithsonian.)
The 21 monuments officers, like their World War II predecessors, will bring a mix of skill sets to their mission: civilian experience, on the one hand, and military training, on the other.
They are experienced museum curators, art historians, archaeologists and conservationists who joined the military as reservists. That status means they will maintain their civilian careers but train on a regular basis with their units. Fifteen have been assigned to the U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command, and six are connected to the army reserves of U.S. allies.
Equipped with master’s degrees or Ph.D.s, these new reservists are attending courses to gain basic soldier skills and knowledge of military operations planning. Officially known as 38G/6V heritage and preservation officers, the reservists will learn to work effectively in the field and coordinate with other military units.
“Our 10-day training is mostly to introduce key concepts surrounding disaster risk management for cultural heritage, to integrate cultural heritage knowledge with military operational requirements, and to create a strong team dynamic,” Wegener said.
‘There to assist’
One role-playing exercise taught the monuments officers to improvise when a (fake) security guard protecting “artworks” in a fictitious country got distracted and “accidentally” put his foot through a valuable painting (actually, an inexpensive item salvaged from a garage sale). The incident was staged to help the recruits learn to keep their cool in a crisis.
Yearly training events are planned and will work around monthly training with reservists’ home-station units.
When deployed overseas, monuments officers will liaise with other military units and connect with citizens of their host country — including museum professionals — to see where they can be most useful. “I tend to follow the lead of the local communities and let them set their priorities,” DeJesse said. “It’s their heritage … we are there to assist.”
In terms of legacy, “there’s a special history that we’re tied to,” with a connection to veterans of other wars as well as the monuments men of World War II, he said.
Thanks to the Hollywood movie The Monuments Men (loosely based on Robert Edset and Bret Witter’s nonfiction book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History), that legacy is widely known. And yes, there were a few monuments women, too.
“I think all of us look to the monuments men and women of World War II as our lodestar and enduring example, while we are also aware that today’s conflicts come with different challenges,” Wegener said. At the Smithsonian, “U.S. and international monuments officers could train together and develop lasting relationships. They now have a military professional network they can depend upon and consult wherever their mission may take them.”