This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
During World War II, a U.S. Army unit known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section helped save European art treasures from destruction. A new Smithsonian exhibit explores the true story of the scholars, historians and art curators who became known as the “Monuments Men,” which was also recently adapted for film. We explore a unique chapter in art history, and explore the ongoing challenge of protecting cultural heritage sites around the world.
- Michele Lamprakos Assistant Professor, School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, University of Maryland-College Park
- Cori Wegener Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer, Smithsonian Institution
- Kate Haw Director, Archives of American Art
MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from The University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo. The Ghent Altarpiece is considered one of Europe's greatest works of art. And today, the wooden portrait depicting scenes from Christian theology sits in a centuries old Belgian cathedral. But without a group of American soldiers, it might have been lost somewhere in Austria.
MS. JEN GOLBECKDuring World War II, the U.S. military created a special unit of architects and art historians who came to be known as "The Monuments Men." They saved paintings from bombings, mapped out important sites and dug artistic treasures out of salt mines. It's a unique historical story of how Europe's cultural heritage was saved from war. But in other corners of the world, like the Middle East, conflicts still threaten significant parts of the world's cultural past.
MS. JEN GOLBECKJoining me to discuss is Kate Haw. She is Director of the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, which currently has an exhibit telling the true story of "The Monuments Men." It's good to have you with us, Kate.
MS. KATE HAWThank you. It's great to be here.
GOLBECKIn studio, we have Cori Wegener. She's the Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer for the Smithsonian Institution, and a former U.S. Army Major. She's also the founder of the US Committee of the Blue Shield, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting culture during armed conflict. Thanks for being here, Cori.
MS. CORI WEGENERThanks, Jen.
GOLBECKAnd Michele Lamprakos. She's Professor of Architecture and Historic Preservation at The University of Maryland. Good to have you here.
MS. MICHELE LAMPRAKOSNice to be here.
GOLBECKMichele, let's start with you. The story of "The Monuments Men" is certainly an exciting tale, so much so that it caught the eye of Hollywood and they just turned it into a blockbuster film. But how relevant is it to cultural preservation efforts today? To what extent can we use "The Monuments Men" as an example as we try to figure out how to save artifacts and artwork caught in the crossfire of modern day conflicts?
LAMPRAKOSWell, I think there are certain parallels to what's going on in the so-called Arab Spring today, with what happened in World War II. I'm struck by the parallel of the wider struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights. There's, of course, a tremendous toll in terms of dead, displacement and suffering in both places. And we're seeing destruction not only of monuments in both places, but of entire urban neighborhoods and the societies and economies that support them. We're seeing the heroic acts of curators and art historians, architects who put their lives at risk.
LAMPRAKOSSo, I think the parallels are very interesting, and I think, I guess Cori will have more to say about that, but I think there's also some notable differences, which is that the places where the Arab Spring's happening today are former colonies or protectorates of Europe, and they were at the time of World War II. And now they're independent. But international structures of government, including international heritage charters, cultural policy, generally, still tends to be dominated by European concepts of the artwork.
LAMPRAKOSAnd as an architect and urban historian, I think that has some limitations for how we look at heritage on the broader urban scale.
GOLBECKYeah. There are interesting colonialism aspects to this, which we'll get to later in the show. But Cori, I wanted to throw that same question at you and get your feedback.
WEGENERWell, I guess the most obvious difference between today's conflicts and World War II is that those were state on state violence. You had whole nations going against other nations, with a clear front line. And, you know, "The Monuments Men" sometimes crossed those lines and worked, you know, very close to the action, and some were even killed. Today, these conflicts are often internal conflicts and they're very much often about religion, about other types of differences that aren't as clear cut.
GOLBECKKate, the Archives of American Art currently has an exhibit telling the true story of "The Monuments Men," including photographs, maps and audio interviews that detail the lengths that these men went to, in order to save some of Europe's art. Why did the U.S. military create a unit dedicated to culture in the first place and how did the role of that unit evolve as the war continued?
HAWWell, when Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940, people all throughout Europe and the United States began worrying about what was going to happen to important cultural monuments. When -- after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. began to worry about the war coming to our shores and began to take measures to protect the great art in the museums in the U.S. At the same time, they started talking about, what are we going to do to protect things here, if the war comes here? But also to help protect things in Europe.
HAWAnd so, a group museum professionals came together led, at that point, by the Associate Director of The Fog Museum at Harvard, and then later by George Stout, who really became the face of "The Monuments Men." Their mission was to help allied forces identify cultural monuments and resources that they really ought to try to avoid bombing, if at all possible. Now, they understood that the protection of human life was primary, but they felt that protecting these monuments and important pieces of the cultural history of Europe could be accomplished without jeopardizing human life.
HAWSo, they did go over and do that with the backing, eventually, of General Eisenhower. After that phase of their activity had been underway for some time, their mission shifted and they turned to recovering the millions of works of art that had been stolen by the Nazis across Europe.
GOLBECKWe mentioned the Ghent Altarpiece, Kate. It had been stolen by the Nazis and was stashed in an Austrian salt mine. Tell us about how "The Monuments Men" managed to find and rescue works of art like that one.
HAWWell, they listened a lot. They got clues from the people around them in the European countries. They weren't always trusted. But they did find hints along the way. In the case of the mines where the Ghent Alterpiece was found, they put themselves in great danger to get to that place. And they found there, not only the Ghent Alterpiece, but Michelangelo's Madonna from Brugge and many, many other works of art. They had a great ally for another stash, that they found at Neuschwanstein.
HAWThis was Rose Valland, who had been working in the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris and was really a great hero who put herself at great risk to identify the location of works of art that had come out of mostly of French private collections and been sent off into castles. Hers is a great story.
GOLBECKSo you can also join the conversation. From "The Monuments Men" to today, what do you think about the US's role in protecting art and history abroad? Would you risk your life to protect a piece of art? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or by emailing us to firstname.lastname@example.org. Cori, in 1954, the Hague Convention agreed upon guidelines that soldiers should follow when they're dealing with cultural property. And it based them on the example of "The Monuments Men." Why do you think they were seen as a model for preserving culture during war?
WEGENERWell, I think "The Monuments Men" really -- it was the first time in history where there was concerted effort during an armed conflict to really have teams of individuals who were dedicated to this. And when the allies won the war, then they made a real effort to restitute those properties to their rightful owners.
GOLBECKAnd that was unusual at the time.
WEGENERIt was pretty unprecedented. And so, there was also recognition, though, that the previous international law of war agreements that 1899 Hague Convention, 1907 Hague Convention hadn't really done the trick. I mean, clearly, the Nazis and the Axis Powers violated lots of international law of war agreements. But among them, the specific interest in looting cultural property. And so, and then there was also mass destruction, you know, just from the advanced weaponry in use. So, they decided that they would do a new treaty and look at what did work for World War II.
WEGENERAnd "The Monuments Men" model clearly, they felt that it was really necessary to have people in uniform who could move with the military, understand the military structure and work within it to advise commanders on how to protect. And that was the critical element, is that it really had to be people who were able to operate in that military environment and use military resources. "The Monuments Men" didn't always get the resources they needed, but they got more than a civilian would have on the ground trying to do that kind of work.
GOLBECKCori, you're kind of a modern day Monuments Woman. You were in the Army Reserve for 21 years, and at one point, you actually served as an archives monuments and arts officer in Baghdad. To what extent does the military carry out the work of "The Monuments Men" today?
WEGENERWell, as far as arts monuments and archives goes, that has -- in World War II, it was part of the military government division of civil affairs. We still have civil affairs units in the Army Reserve and in the active component today, as well as in the Marine Corps. And that has never stopped. We have always had some aspect of arts monuments and archives as part of our field manual and doctrine in civil affairs. From 1943 up until the present, it still exists today.
WEGENERIt's not as organized as it was for World War II. It's not --clearly, not as well resourced. We just talked about the Roberts Commission and how they developed "The Monuments Men" during World War II. We don't have a presidential commission to look after this today. But what we do have are some dedicated individuals with expertise in either -- we have some art historians, we have some archivists, we have some librarians, we have some archeologists. And what we're working at doing today, though, is trying to strengthen that within civil affairs, along with other civil military expertise.
WEGENERAnd there's a lot of work being done in the last 10 years on that topic.
GOLBECKMichele, you said at a recent symposium on cultural preservation that "The Monuments Men" program also served as a form of anti-Nazi propaganda for the U.S. government. Why would that be the case? What did the U.S. stand to gain from a program to protect European art during World War II?
LAMPRAKOSWell, my understanding of that, which is based on certain scholarly articles that I've read -- I'm not as much of an expert on this as Kate and Cori, but that there was this desire when it was clear that we were going to -- the tide of war had turned and we were going to be going and pushing back the Nazis, that the protection of cultural property would give us a kind of moral edge in the war. And so, to my knowledge, what basically happened is that the core went in and they performed these heroic deeds, but they did not always get a great degree of sympathy or support from the US military.
LAMPRAKOSAnd one point that I think was neglected in the movie -- you guys may have a different view on this, is that "The Monuments Men" were actually not able to prevent the bombing of certain important historic sites. I mean, they tried, they succeeded once or twice, but military strategies and goals prevailed.
GOLBECKKate, would you like to comment?
HAWWell, I think that, just in terms of what did we have to gain by protecting these cultural monuments, in the earliest drafts that George Stout wrote, proposing the formation of "The Monuments Men," he indicated this understanding that it would be a very good trust building exercise. You know, he had an overall appreciation for the fact that if he -- and other "Monuments Men" had an overall appreciation for the fact that if you destroy a peoples' history, you give them a very weak foundation on which to rebuild once the war is over.
HAWIf the U.S. could help preserve that foundation, it would help them to rebuild. And it would build the trust over the course of that rebuilding, and indeed, for the remainder of the war. So, he was forward thinking in that way.
GOLBECKWe'll continue our conversation -- oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead, Kate. Were you...
HAWNo. No. Go ahead.
GOLBECKWe're gonna take a quick break now. If you've called in, we'll get your calls after the break. If you'd like to join us, you can call 1-800-433-8850. We'll continue our conversation about preserving culture in times of conflict after this break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jen Golbeck, sitting in for Kojo.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm talking with Kate Haw, Cori Wegener and Michele Lamprakos about preserving culture in times of conflict. You can join the conversation. What do you think of the "Monuments Men" and who's responsibility is it to protect important cultural sites? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850, by sending us an email to email@example.com or check us out through Facebook and send Tweets to @kojoshow.
GOLBECKWe got an email from Brooke who writes, "I'm so thrilled you're doing this show and I hope it helps to raise awareness of the cultural and art pieces being lost in the Middle East. My dad was Charles Parkhurst who was one of the Monuments Men and later assistant curator at the National Gallery of Art. And I know he'd be upfront in the charge to save these newly threatened works." Either -- any of you like to comment on that?
WEGENERWell, this is Cori and I just remember when I was in graduate school and reading books like the "Rape of Europa" by Lynn Nicholas, those names, you know, Charles Parkhurst, George Stout really inspired me and my career. And, you know, I just think that the fact that these heirs of the Monuments Men are out there helping tell their story today is really fantastic for those of us who tried to follow in their footsteps as best we could.
GOLBECKLet's take a call from Barbara in Rockville, Md. Barbara, you're on the air. Go ahead.
BARBARAYes. Actually my father was a Nazi hunter and I'm very familiar with this. But I do wonder why you haven't mentioned that the great collectors were Jewish collectors. And they had great private collections which were also in museums. And that it was primarily an assault on the Jews who were -- the Nazis were hunting. And actually they preserved the works that they -- they did not intend to destroy their works. They preserved them for themselves.
GOLBECKThanks, Barbara. Let's get the panel's take on that. Kate, do you want to comment on Barbara's call?
HAWSure. That is absolutely true. You know, while many of the public collections in Europe were protected because people took measures to do so, the private collections suffered greatly. And the majority of those were absolutely the collections of wealthy Jews who had been forced to flee and were not able to take things with them. And the Nazis then came in and took whatever they wanted from those collections. So certainly, in terms of the private collections, the Jews suffered disproportionately.
GOLBECKMichele, as we've already mentioned, armed conflict continues to threaten many cultural object today. In Syria, for example, many historical artifacts and sites have already been destroyed in the ongoing civil war. Last year archaeologists were horrified to see an 11th century minaret of a famous mosque in Aleppo collapse from an explosion. How many more cultural objects and historical sites continue to be at risk in a conflict like Syria's?
LAMPRAKOSWell, as a newspaper article -- I think it was New York Times -- just last week showed about the continuing destruction in Syria, I think we're looking at very, very broad destruction. The Syrian archaeologists, French archaeologists are tracing and trying to get a good sense of what the scope is. The question of course is the bigger context of the ongoing struggle. And we have to kind of balance our concern for monuments and artifacts of the past with the rights and freedoms that people are actually fighting for and dying for, and all the people left as refugees and left homeless. I think it's a really important thing to keep in mind.
GOLBECKYeah, this is an interesting point, and we were talking in the studio before the show started about the actual film "The Monuments Men." And I was really struck by how they tried to handle this issue of balancing preserving art and architecture and monuments against the human cost. And I thought there were a few scenes in the movie where they did that really effectively.
GOLBECKAnd the one that comes to mind that won't spoil anything for people who haven't seen the movie is that they're in one of these salt mines recovering works of art. And Matt Damon's character goes to what looks like an oil drum that's full of gold that they eventually reveal is gold taken out of the teeth. And I think -- excuse me -- it's a very poignant scene where all of a sudden you're thinking about art and architecture and then you see this huge human cost that has nothing to do with the art, really captured there.
GOLBECKSo I thought, as not an art person, that they did a nice job kind of balancing those things in the movie. But I'd be interested to get all of your takes on that. Because, Michele, you raise an interesting point. So maybe, Michele, you could start.
LAMPRAKOSWell, I think this wider question of rights and freedoms that people are fighting for in the Middle East is something that lies at the heart of this heritage question. We have tended to focus on monuments as objects. And this is maybe one of the main points that came up at our symposium at the Freer Gallery about ten days ago. It's not that monuments and artworks aren't important but they are evidence of a civilization.
LAMPRAKOSAnd when we talk about the importance of sustaining civilization and civilizational memory, we also have to think that the rights and freedoms that are at the heart of this conflict are the basis of civilization, right. So we can't forget that that's the bigger context. And sometimes when we talk about our concern for cultural monuments, it comes off as seeming a little bit elitist like, can't those people just stop killing each other and protect their monuments? When in fact, there're much broader and deeper societal political questions at stake.
GOLBECKSo Kate, can I have you comment on this, both -- the balance of the human cost of these conflicts, balancing that with preserving the culture both in general and then also in the movie in particular.
HAWWell, I think, and as Michele pointed out, a lot of times the Monuments Men were not successful at preserving monuments because the strategy of the war to protect human life was primary. So that is always going to win out. I think what's important is that constant reminder that if things can be saved, they need to be saved because they are important. They are an essential element of culture, of history and of how we build going forward.
HAWIn terms of the movie itself, I did think there were certainly poignant moments. I think walking into apartments that people had had to flee and seeing what had then happened when the Nazis came in and took everything of value really gave you a personal sense of the absolute lack of humanity that the Nazis were acting with. There was another scene with a little boy who was sort of the only person left in a town that had been bombed, and this sense of loss and fear that went along with that.
HAWSo I do think the movie did a nice job of balancing. It's an entertainment piece so it's first and foremost that, but I definitely think they took care to attend to the human cost.
GOLBECKCori, there are many international nonprofit organizations that focus on preserving cultural property around the world, so why does it make sense for the U.S. military to be playing a role in arts preservation?
WEGENERWell, first of all, it's a legal requirement under the 1954 Hague Convention that we mentioned earlier where the countries of the world, more than 120 countries are states parties to the Hague Convention. And within that treaty we agree that we will have within our military forces who can plan for the protection of cultural property and then assist the nation where the cultural property is located if necessary in preserving that, even in a time of war.
WEGENERWe also agree that each country will plan during time of peace for the protection of our own cultural heritage within our country, which the U.S. has also agreed to do. But I think it's important because while there's multiple humanitarian type organizations out there, nonprofits, etcetera, they're not going to be there on the ground when the conflict is actually going on. And the -- it's the countries who are the states parties who are actually responsible for carrying out the guidelines which includes if there's going to be, for instance, a NATO bombing campaign or that sort of thing, that you have to know where those cultural sites are and avoid hitting them if it's at all possible.
GOLBECKWe have a caller who can speak to some of this, I think. We have Lee from Falls Church, Va. Lee, you're on the air. Go ahead.
LEEThanks for taking my call. My question is about the invasion of Iraq. At the time, I was serving on a taskforce at the State Department and had the responsibility for cultural and press affairs. I got urgent phone calls right away from the provisional embassy team that went in saying that the massive looting was going on and the national museum was being emptied. What could be done?
LEEWell, there was nothing at the moment that could be done from the Washington end. And the replay was, you've got the guns and the guys. See what you can do. So my question is, was there prior planning to save architectural and cultural treasures? And were there any assets available?
GOLBECKCori, you actually went in to assess the damage from the looting at that time, correct?
WEGENERWell, actually I was called up as an individual from my home in Minnesota after the museum was already looted, and went over to Baghdad within a period of a couple of weeks. We did have a team on the ground. We had a civil affairs command that was with the forces in Kuwait and then on into Iraq. But unfortunately during the actual push into Baghdad, those forces, because they're in support of the combat forces, were still behind in Kuwait. And so that was one of the problematic things.
WEGENERAnd we had the locations of cultural sites but there was no direction to actively, you know, stand in front of them and guard them sort of thing at that time. And so, you know, I think that that would've gone a great distance toward preserving those sites if we'd had more focus on what we would do if we actively had to guard those sites.
GOLBECKYou can also join the conversation. If a country can't protect its artifacts, do others have the right or responsibility to go in and take it and preserve it or should it remain at home and potentially be destroyed? Share your thoughts with us. You can call 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Kate, how aware do you think the American public is that even today cultural objects continue to be at risk around the world?
HAWWell, I think we certainly saw examples of that in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I guess the question is more, at what point on the spectrum do people think it's important? And I think that obviously is going to vary. I think it would be wonderful if our news media paid more attention to these things. Because I really -- you know, if we think about some of the most important monuments in our country, think about even something as, on one level, mundane and non-historical as the World Trade Center, and yet they were so symbolic, those towers, how we felt when those were destroyed, that they were a symbol of something.
HAWImagine if people were to come in and destroy the Capitol, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery, the Smithsonian, all of these places that mean something in our country, the churches -- the great churches of this country. I think people would care a lot if that happened. And we need to be able to kind of extend that thinking to other places in the world and place importance on the protection of those monuments everywhere wherever possible.
GOLBECKMichele, did you want to comment?
LAMPRAKOSYeah, I just wanted to comment on that that I think that this kind of care and recognition and concern is certainly emerging very vocally in the Arab world through a variety of social media and other online sites. We're seeing a kind of grassroots resurgence of interest in heritage. So I think part of the question we have to think about is, do we as the international community, meaning the west, have the right to go in and do these things or is our role more in a supporting function for the groups in the region that are already doing that?
GOLBECKAnd that becomes a hard issue if you're looking at art or artifacts in a place where you really feel like the government can't protect it. Does the international community then go in and take that art out and protect it or do you leave it there in the country that it belongs to, Cori?
WEGENERWell, I just -- I'd like to say that I do think -- I agree with Michele that we need to kind of be in a supporting role. We want to develop capacity in these countries where they may be having trouble or they're experiencing instability because of armed conflict to enable them to help themselves. And so, you know, one of the things we've done at the Smithsonian is we're in the process of developing the Cultural Crisis Recovery Center where we can provide support, technical expertise, even teams to go on the ground and help when the capacity of the caretakers of those collections are overwhelmed and need support.
WEGENERAnd I would hope as a, you know, former museum curator myself that I would have that kind of international help if I needed it, if I was caring for a collection. And so that's where I think the cultural heritage community has to come together.
LAMPRAKOSYeah, just a final comment on that, I think this focus on state actors being the protectors of heritage, the weakness of that system has certainly been exposed in the context of the Arab Spring since state parties are often the destroyers of heritage. And so I think by reaching out to these grassroots constituencies and movements and trying to support them in any way we can, we will try to kind of transform that whole basis of ownership of heritage and responsibility of heritage.
GOLBECKLet's take a call from Mark in Washington. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead.
MARKThanks very much. I appreciate you having this program very much. I've worked very long from the beginning of the modern effort to deal with the issue of recovery of stolen art both private and public. And I thought you might be interested knowing that the actual single source shipping company that the Nazis used had manifests for -- that is bills for each of the collections and individual art that was stolen. That is to say where they picked it up, what it was and where they took it.
MARKHalf of that manifest collection is in our archives and the other half is in the French archives. They're ready to be used to trace. And I don't think it's been used very much. And that goes to the major point. There's money in restoration of art -- stolen art. There's over 200 members of the newly -- relatively newly formed bar association committee on stolen art. When the payoff comes it's very large.
MARKThe problem is that there have been significant international meetings held starting in 1998 in regard to recovery of stolen art, imagine 1998 since the end of the war. And unfortunately, there was a major conference in Prague in 2009 in which 49 heads of state and prime ministers sat and very ceremoniously signed a document foresworn to go through their own museums and private collections and return the art to those who owned it. As was previously said, a lot of it was Jewish-owned art.
GOLBECKSo Mark, let me get the panel's thoughts on this. Kate...
MARKWell, let me just say the major point.
MARKAnd that is, there was supposed to be a follow-through conference last year, five years after. And it couldn't be held because there was nothing done in between. There was not a lot of appetite in this town among our museums and in American museums across the country to search their collections. And it's worse overseas. And it's appalling.
MARKYou can -- you know, the Monuments Men did heroic efforts compared to what is being done. This would be so much simpler now but the inquisitive nature of people is not to give up. The things they think they bought after the theft occurred, which by dent of international and Washington and...
GOLBECKOkay. Mark, let me get our panel's thoughts on that. Kate, do you want to comment on Mark's point?
HAWWell, you know, I can't really speak to the pro-activity of the museum community. What I can speak to is that when it comes to the attention of a museum that -- in America that they have an item that is likely stolen -- likely was stolen, the museum community has been cooperative in those instances in tracing the provenance, and in many cases returning the works of art when it's been proven that they were stolen.
HAWSo, again, because I don't work in that side of the field, I really can't speak to the initiative that museums are taking. But I can say that I know of a number of examples of strong cooperation and return of stolen work.
GOLBECKAnd Cori, you can comment on some of the museum activities?
WEGENERYeah, I can a little bit. As a former art museum curator I know I was -- I worked in the European and American decorative arts. We did research our collections. I was at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and we spent a great deal of time. We have a dedicated part time -- half time provenance research curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I know they have one at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
WEGENERThis is an emerging field of art history research and there are guidelines that we're required to follow by the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums. It's tough though because, you know, you have to spend part of your time doing exhibitions, part of your time writing books, doing research. But this is part -- provenance research for collections is part of our jobs as responsible collections managers and caretakers. And we have to research our collections to see what might have, you know, illegally exchanged hands during World War II. And that is a part of our historic research.
GOLBECKWe're going to take a quick break. If you'd like to join our conversation about preserving culture in times of conflict, you can call 1-800-433-8850. I'm Jen Golbeck and you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Kate Haw, Cori Wegener and Michele Lamprakos about preserving culture in times of conflict. If you'd like to join us, you can call 1-800-433-8850. We have a lot of emails and calls and questions about current crises with culture being destroyed in some of these conflicts. I'd like to start with this email from Charlie in Adams Morgan who says, "I was in Tibet some time ago and was appalled by the number of Tibetan Buddhist religious icons and artworks being destroyed by the Chinese."
GOLBECKAnd Michele, I'd like to turn this to you in a different context. We've also seen in Syria there are reports of Islamic fundamentalist groups that are ordering the destruction of artifacts like Greek statues and ancient mosaics because they're seen as contrary to their religion. Can you talk about how important it is to understand the different cultural dynamics that might be at play when we're talking about cultural preservation in foreign countries?
LAMPRAKOSWell, that's a very broad question, but...
GOLBECKYou can answer whatever the...
LAMPRAKOS...well, just to say a word about the Islamist piece. Certainly there's Islamist groups that have engaged in destruction of heritage, not only during the Arab Spring but in peacetime. The case of Mali was treated at our symposium where not only, well, the manuscripts were basically saved by the local curators and population but Sufi shrines have been destroyed. And as some of you probably know, Sufism is a kind of popular and more pluralistic, more open version of Islam that the Islamists in particular do not like.
LAMPRAKOSSo they are kind of trying to project on these artifacts and sites their own version of the past. But I think it's also important to remember that we have lots of destruction of heritage sites in peacetime often by the very protectors of those religious sites. One example that comes to mind if the case of the sacred precinct of the Haddam (sp?) the Cobb in Mecca.
LAMPRAKOSAnd so just two years ago I think there was a piece in the New Yorker about how the Saudi states in conjunction with development and financial interests were basically (word?) the whole precinct of the Haddam in Mecca and really destroying not only historic fabric, but the whole historic context of the city. And so I think we need to keep this in perspective. Sometimes this can feed into kind of Islamaphobia and blaming everything on the Islamists. And, in fact, it's much more complex.
GOLBECKI'd like to take a call from Eadreese. I hope I'm saying your name right, in Alexandria. Go ahead, please.
EADREESEHello, yeah. It's Eadreese, that was close enough. Thank you for taking my call. I was calling because I've been really -- I was really fascinated to hear your speakers discussing treating objects with reference as opposed to people and the implications it has on the cultures that are affected. I'm half Afghan and when the Taliban destroyed the statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, there was, you know, huge amounts of outrage in the Afghan community. But that was really -- it was quickly redirected when there was all this media attention poured onto that particular incident.
EADREESEWhile in the meantime thousands of people were continuing to die in that conflict. And people had this impression that, look, the west or America is completely concerned with objects and completely devalue the people of Afghanistan.
GOLBECKThanks for your call. I'd like to turn this over to the panel. Cori, do you want to comment?
WEGENERWell, I guess I'd just say it wasn't just the American cultural heritage community that was outraged by the destruction of the bombing of Buddhas. It was absolutely international in nature and I think, you know, it was a -- a big aspect of the shock of that was that for such a long time we had had the, you know, '54 Hague Convention that really prohibits that sort of intentional destruction of cultural property, and coming off of the Bosnian conflict, which also witnessed intentional destruction of cultural heritage.
WEGENERSo I hate to say that people were valuing culture more than the human cost of the conflict, because I didn't feel that way personally. I just saw it as yet another step in a continuum against humanity. You know, you're killing people. You're trying to destroy the evidence of their existence. Those things go hand in hand.
GOLBECKAnd Michel, this ties into the point you were just making, that there's really a continuum of conflict here where these sorts of issues come up.
LAMPRAKOSRight. I should just say that, you know, I'm an historian and an architect. And I have slightly different concerns, and curators, art historians who are focused on objects. But I think that work obviously is very, very important. I just want to say that this kind of targeted destruction of a very high profile monument, as horrible as it seems, is probably -- was probably very clearly thought out as kind of an attack on what is seen as a western enterprise, rightly or wrongly.
LAMPRAKOSAnd so one of the main conclusions that I think came out of our symposium that pretty much everybody focused on was this idea that we have to start moving away from a strict art historical focus, again, things versus the people that kind of sustain them. And so in the symposium there were kind of two levels of discussion. One was, what can international agencies do? And the answer tended to be, in the midst of conflict, not much, right.
LAMPRAKOSBut the second part was what we spend more time on, which was what can we do afterwards? And how can these new circumstances that are arising the least lead us to rethink the way we've done cultural heritage in the past. Big infusions of foreign capital focused on tourism often bypassing the interests of people in the very communities that use these buildings and to sustain the heritage. And so I think that's where the most important critical thinking can come into play now.
GOLBECKLet's take a call from Ovis in Falls Church, Va. Another name I'm not sure I'm saying right. I think we're picking up your radio. Ovis, are you on the line with us? Okay. We're going to move on from that. The question that I have here on the board is that the troops and Monuments Men were rushing to get artwork before the Russians. Were they also trying to restore art or going to loot it? And I think that question that I'm going to throw to you, Kate, is a question about what the Russians were doing as they were also collecting and retrieving some of this art in World War II.
HAWWell, I think the intent of the Russians was to keep it for themselves as they got it. And so the Monuments -- the U.S. and European Monuments Men were indeed rushing to get ahead of them and be sure that these objects were saved with the intent of returning them to their rightful owners.
GOLBECKAnd we have an email that I'll just read here. "Among the experts and curators who are Monuments Men and Women, they're also artists themselves. I inherited work by one of them, Walter Hancock, who was a sculpture. He made a bronze portrait of my grandfather in the early 1920s when he was an art student in Philadelphia and my grandfather was about 12." So a nice little personal story for us to put in here. Kate, at the end of the war, the Monuments Men returned the art to their original owners. Why do you think they felt it was important to send the artwork back?
HAWWell, I think it was certainly part of this trust building element of the whole enterprise. Cori mentioned earlier that this was the first time really that that had happened. Usually these kinds of treasures became the spoils of war and it was more finder's keepers. But I think from the very beginning, as they wrote the documents that identified the purpose and mission of the Monuments Men, there was a very clear understanding that this was about protecting these monuments for the countries in which they exist. And when I say monuments I mean buildings, paintings, sculpture, all of these important cultural monuments, to the history of the places where they belonged.
HAWSo it only made sense that it wasn't protecting them so we could take them for ourselves. It was protecting them with an understanding that keeping them safe and where they were was very important to the rebuilding of these cultures when the war was over.
GOLBECKLet's take a call from Suzanne in McLean. Suzanne, you're on the air. Go ahead.
SUZANNEHello. Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to make the point that your speakers refer to international community, and that's a political word these days, means the western countries. And if you want to talk about the whole international (unintelligible) included. So you mean a western country trying to protect the culture and heritage (unintelligible) which being in colonialism and imperialism they have stolen the artwork and antiquity from those countries and have not returned it because the stolen things from mosques in the Middle East are shown in Metropolitan museum in New York.
SUZANNEAnd they are there. They are stolen. And also recently, the United States' war in Iraq and other places has destroyed a lot of antiquity and heritage of those people and they haven't paid reparation. So there's no way that the people in those countries do trust or should trust the westerners to go there. And also this whole thing about Muslims, Islamic history and civilization has contributed hugely to civilization and the artwork of the world. So I don't...
GOLBECKSuzanne, let me get the panel's comment on that. I think Michele can speak both to the contributions of Islam and also this issue of these works that have been taken. And it's not just the examples that she raises, but we see lots of antiquities in the British museum, for example, that some of these countries want back.
LAMPRAKOSRight. Well, I completely agree with the caller that the term international community is extremely problematic. It basically means the west. And I think if we look at it in terms of the international charters, we still see certain notions of the artwork, the master work indebted to European art history. The failure to repatriate cultural property is an ongoing conflict and has, let's say, contributed to mistrust toward western organizations, cultural organizations.
LAMPRAKOSAt the same time I think we have to recognize that the international heritage community now includes very professionalized and accomplished cores of people from the region themselves, right. So it's not just the west imposing their ideals on the Middle East. I think the devoted curators and art historians and architects, archaeologists who are working in the region are very much proud of the products of their civilization and the great contribution that it's made.
LAMPRAKOSAnd finally now, in the late 20th, early 21st century, these works of art are considered world heritage, masterpieces of world civilization, whereas it only used to be European, right.
GOLBECKSo we've got about a minute left. Cori, I'm going to give you the last question. After you retired from the military in 2006, you started the organization U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield dedicated to protecting culture in times of conflict. How did your experience as a cultural officer in the military convince you that such an organization was necessary?
WEGENERWell, I met Blue Shield colleagues from around the world whose countries had already ratified the 1954 Hague Convention. I met military colleagues from other countries like Italy who had specialized monuments officers. And, you know, I learned at that time that the U.S. had not yet ratified the 1954 Hague Convention, even though we helped to draft it.
WEGENERAnd so it became apparent to me that we would have to start some kind of group to try and lobby for that. And that's exactly what happened. The U.S. ratified the 1954 Hague Convention in 2009. And I wanted to really emphasize here in the U.S. that this treaty exists, that we're part of the effort and that we have a lot of work to do in both, you know, making plans for protecting our own cultural heritage as well as when we are out in the rest of the world, how we handle things and treat other people's cultural heritage.
GOLBECKFor our listeners the Smithsonian exhibit about the Monuments Men is on display at the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery until April 20. And you can see images of some of the artifacts and work of art that we're talking about at our website kojoshow.org. I'd like to thank our guests, Kate Haw, director of the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, Cori Wegener, Cultural Heritage preservation officer for the Smithsonian and Michele Lamprakos, professor of Architecture and historic preservation at the University of Maryland. Thanks everyone for being here. I'm Jen Golbeck. I've been sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi today. Thanks for listening.
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