On December 21, 1941, directors from the great museums in America joined at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City for a historic meeting. In the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, these cultural leaders realized that it was time to take action. Their initial concerns focused on the safety of American museums – would they be prepared for an attack on their own cities? Other logistical problems were a concern as well. In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts had closed the Japanese galleries out of fear of angry mobs. The Met was closing at dusk to prevent visitors from running into things in the event of a blackout.
At the meeting, Paul Sachs issued a resolution, stating:
“If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we… must summon to our defense all our intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future. Art is the imperishable and dynamic expression of these aims. It is, and always has been, the visible evidence of the activity of free minds.”
In hindsight, we know that a further attack on American soil never occurred. However, this meeting had lasting effects: it served as the birthplace of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section. After the Met meeting, Monuments Man George Stout and Harvard Professor Paul Sachs continued to reach out to museum leaders to develop a plan of action for when the Allies would inevitably arrive in Europe, for it had become obvious that it was the cultural treasures of Europe, not America, that would need protection. The Monuments Men were the embodiment the eloquent words Sachs spoke in December 1941.