A group of Monuments Men and Women standing in front of the Munich Collecting Point in 1945. From Left to Right: Capt. Marcelle Minet, France; Lt. Craig Hugh Smyth, US; Capt. Hubert de Brye, France (above); Lt. Col. Alphonse Vorenkamp, the Netherlands (below); Lt. Doda Conrad, US; Lt. Jean Lemaire, Belgium; Lt. Charles Parkhurst, US; and Maj. Pierre Duchartre, France. (National Gallery, Washington, D.C.)
I am frequently asked by people, “who are the Monuments Men and if they are so important, why haven’t we heard about them before now?” It’s an excellent question with a simple but seemingly improbable answer.
First, who they were. The Monuments Men were a group of museum directors, curators, artists, architects, and scholars who volunteered for service during World War ll to protect the most important cultural treasures of Europe from the destruction of the war and theft by Hitler and the Nazis. This was an unprecedented effort to fight a war and at the same time mitigate damage to cultural items during combat. (If anyone has any doubt about why this is an important concept, consider the damage to the reputation of the United States and its allies over its handling of the aftermath of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq after the invasion of Baghdad in 2003!)
These men and women left their families and quite established careers to go into combat to save some of mankind’s most beloved works of art and other important items including paintings (by artists no less well known than Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo), sculpture, drawings, stained glass, church bells, religious objects, and of course some of the most important and famous structures in the world. They had virtually no resources allocated to them by the Army; creativity and resourcefulness was their guide. Their success was remarkable: within five years of the end of the war, they located and recovered more than 5 million cultural items stolen and/or hidden by the Nazis.
By the end of the war there were less than 60 Monuments Men in all of Europe. In fact, there had been only a dozen or so on the ground within a few months after the D-Day landings. Because such a few number of men and women were charged with the awesome responsibility of protecting the innumerable cultural riches of our western civilization, their service and mission was lost in the fog of history. They had no spokespersons to preserve their legacy so to speak…and it was almost lost. For that reason, few knew of the Monuments Men and fewer still wrote about them or their achievements until now.
Their heroic achievements didn’t end with the war either. As they returned home from combat, these gifted men and women helped build the cultural world we enjoy today, especially in the United States. In the United Kingdom their leadership impacted world renowned institutions including the British Museum, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Tate Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Courtauld Institute, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the United States these visionary leaders impacted the New York City Ballet, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the National Gallery of Art, the Frick Collection, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, and the San Francisco Legion of Honor, just to name a few. We owe them all our respect and admiration, especially when we visit a museum whose existence today is due in part to their sacrifices of long ago.
I hope you will take a few minutes to delve further into our new website, watch the promo video for my new book on the Monuments Men, and WRITE ME to tell me about your connection to this amazing story. I will pick some of the most interesting responses to share with everyone in future blogs.