'Monuments' records shown
WASHINGTON — When Paris fell to the Nazis in World War II, art historians realized Europe's monuments, art, cathedrals and architecture were at risk and began mobilizing to protect them.
In Washington, the newly opened National Gallery of Art became the museum world's epicenter for lobbying President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Allied forces in 1941 to prevent the ravaging of Europe's monuments. Their efforts formed a corps of U.S. and British soldiers who worked to protect cultural sites and recover looted art after the war.
For the first time, photographs, maps, correspondence and records — including lists of art amassed by Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders — from the corps of soldiers known as “monuments men” are going on display in the National Gallery of Art, an archives gallery at the Smithsonian's Donald W. Reynolds Center and the National Archives.
At the same time, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett tell the story in “The Monuments Men” movie opening on Friday, drawing attention to the history. It's a story straight out of the nation's archives and art repositories from records that real monuments men and women left behind.
One of them was George Leslie Stout, an art conservator at the Fogg Museum in Boston, who drafted a plan for a special military team to protect Europe's art from Allied bombings. He enlisted in the Navy with hopes of seeing his plan through. Leaders of the National Gallery of Art pressed the case, leading to the formation of the Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section.
Examining the real records helps bring the story of the “monuments men” to life, said Maygene Daniels, chief of the National Gallery's archives.
“What we're trying to recreate is what it was like to be a young officer trained in art history or archaeology who finds yourself in the military and has this amazing responsibility of protecting great art,” she said. “It was an extraordinary moment in history.”