As is usually the case when Hollywood tries to tell a “based on real events” story that has its origins in Washington, the birth of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program is little less sexy. However, as many critics have noted — even when giving the film lukewarm reviews — its mission was an important one that should be celebrated, and the legacy of its history lives on today.
The National Gallery is examining just that history in an exhibit that opens Tuesday, having played a crucial role in organizing the program that put expertise of the fine arts world at the war effort’s disposal.“This was the center of the cultural community’s efforts to get government attention,” says Chief of Gallery Archives Maygene Daniels, who is putting together “Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art: The Inside Story,” a display’s of some of the museum’s archival materials connected to the real-life Monuments Men.The Gallery was a fledgling institution, having only opened in March of 1941, yet it took its role seriously as the national establishment for fine arts. And while its director David Finley may not have been the sort of scene-stealer played up in the movie — “He was totally self-effacing,” Daniels says — he had something maybe more important in Washington: connections. “He was always working through other people,” Daniels says, including Harlan Stone, the Supreme Court Chief Justice who also served as the chair of the Gallery’s board of trustees
Acting on the concerns of the broader cultural community in America — including groups at Harvard and the American Council of Learned Societies — that had long been worried about the effect of battle, Nazi looting and Hitler’s intentions to destroy so called “degenerate” art, Finley sought to get government cooperation in protecting the cultural heritages of the European and Asian countries being ravaged by war, particularly as the United States was about to embark its own campaign with Allied Forces.Finley helped package the memo authored by Stone that was delivered to the president imploring him to act on these concerns. Roosevelt agreed and the commission that would become known as the Roberts Commission, chaired by Stone’s associate justice on the court Owen Roberts, was formed in 1943. It was housed right in the offices of the National Gallery, where it could direct the handful of museum professionals, architects, classicists and other cultural experts tapped to work with the military both here and abroad, to protect, recover and ultimately return threatened artifacts.
The movie, based on a book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, focuses the exploits of these men on the ground in Europe led by Stokes, loosely based on real-life figures including preservationist George Stout (who inspired Clooney’s character) and Metropolitan Museum of Art curator James Rorimer (the basis of Matt Damon’s James Granger), as they uncover art stolen by the Nazis hidden in salt mines and castles. But the commission’s directives were far broader and ranged from printing guides for soldiers if they came across a museum that had been bombed, to working with the State Department to formulate the U.S. policy on restitution.
That policy meant that when the war ended their work was only starting. Much of the recovered art was gathered into main collection points in Wiesbaden and Munich, where it was cataloged, and the task of returning it to its original owners was undertaken.
“The movie obviously isn't going to show the little clerks copying down the names of things, but at the end of the day that's why things got back safely where they needed to go,” Daniels says.
Furthermore the MFAA's mission lives on in the form of the Cultural Heritage Center, an office in the State Department. The center, which was a part of United States Information Agency before restructuring moved it to State, continues to work in conflict zones — from the recent U.S. war in Iraq to the ongoing crisis in Syria — as well in international areas affected by natural disasters, like the monsoon floods that raged Thailand in 2011.
The office coordinates with private organizations, museums, and educational institutions to identify cultural artifacts vulnerable to looting; collaborates with the Department of Homeland Security to hunt down stolen art and other objects that can be tracked through customs; funds art preservation and the training of local arts professionals in countries where there is not a lot of money or expertise; and teams up with ambassadors to identify cultural preservation projects worth supporting.
In the film "The Monuments Men," Stokes and his team are often met with doubts as to whether all this trouble for some pieces of art was worth it (perhaps a stand-in for the viewers' own initial skepticism). But government leaders working with the real Monuments Men were supportive of their work, stemming top down from General Dwight D. Eisenhower's historic order a few days before the D-Day invasion of Normandy when he instructed the military give their full cooperation.
“They realized the propaganda value of all this,” Daniels says, adding that by showing their respect and care for a country’s cultural history, Allied Forces could win over its sympathies from the Nazis. “They also realized, it was about winning the war but also winning the peace. They wanted to be sure that we were on the right side of history.”