The Monuments Men

I’ve been on a movie kick lately, and last night I saw The Monuments Men, which opened this weekend. There are few movies more up my alley — a period movie about art historians saving art in Europe? Sign me up. I knew I’d love it purely based on its premise.

If you don’t know the storyline, a group of art historians, architects, and artists go to the WWII front to track down art looted by the Nazis. No, it’s not an Oscar winner and there are some hokey moments, but overall it’s very enjoyable. The cast is filled with heavy hitters — George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, and John Goodman.

And it is a story that is important to share. Art and historical looting happens all over the world. War and civil unrest are often used as cover to steal some of humanity’s greatest treasures. One of the best lines in the movie goes, “You can wipe out a generation of people. You can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, and their history, then it’s like they never existed.”

Actual 'monuments man' James Rorimer, with notepad, supervises American GIs in May 1945, National Archives and Records Administration via AP / Monuments Foundation for the Preservation of Art of Dallas

Of course movies are often more glamorous than real life. If you are interested in reading about the true story, I highly recommend this overview by the Smithsonian and a NPR piece with additional stories of the Monuments Men. The Met created a self-guided tour of artwork currently on display that was saved by the Monuments Men. And don’t miss the New York Times story about the women in the Monuments Men!

Even though you’ll find discrepancies between the real story and the movie, I hope The Monuments Men does well in theaters. I think it’s important for as many people as possible to see it to appreciate that war causes more damage than most people realize. Art and historical looting and the destruction of state archives are still major problems today. Art and artifact theft was and continues to be a problem in the Middle East, the heart of civilization, which increased due to American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the Arab Spring, artifacts were stolen from archeological sites across Egypt and from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. And with the wave of violent protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the last week, reports say that the Ottoman archives in Sarajevo are lost from a fire set by protesters.

As they say, history repeats itself. But hopefully a movie like The Monuments Men can draw attention to the brave men and women who risked their lives to repatriate WWII-looted art and more people will have their eyes on issues like this in the future.