Meet the D.C. Characters Who Helped Create 'The Monuments Men'

A National Gallery exhibit celebrates the real-life 'Monuments Men,' as their legacy lives on in D.C.

George Clooney plays an art historian in 'The Monuments Men.'

A National Gallery of Art exhibit looks at the real-life Monuments Men, who have inspired George Clooney's film 'The Monuments Men.'

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The movie “The Monuments Men” begins with the earnest scruffy, bespectacled art historian Frank Stokes — played by George Clooney, looking as handsome and George Clooney-y as ever — at a podium in a darkened theater with a screen projector equipped with slides of classic artworks. He is making an impassioned case to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (so we assume, we only see his back), as to why the U.S. government in the heat of World War II should devote some of its resources to protecting European paintings, sculptures, monuments and other cultural artifacts that are being threatened by its and other military campaigns.

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.

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David Finley in his office at the National Gallery of Art. Finley was director of the National Gallery of Art from 1938-1956, and vice-chairman of the Roberts Commission.
David Finley in his office at the National Gallery of Art. Finley was director of the National Gallery of Art from 1938-1956, and vice-chairman of the Roberts Commission.

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.

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MFAA officer James Rorimer, future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a primary force behind the creation of the Cloisters, examines jewelry from the Rothschild Collection.
MFAA officer James Rorimer, future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a primary force behind the creation of the Cloisters, examines jewelry from the Rothschild Collection.

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.

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The notions that helped to create the MFAA continue today, decades after the Roberts Commission convened its last meeting in 1946. The directive of returning the art looted by the Nazis is still ongoing, and the process has been far from perfect.

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.

Now, as was then, these efforts are about more than just a high-minded mission to protect arts and culture. According to Susan R. Pittman, of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the mission of the Cultural Heritage Center is an important tool for enhancing diplomatic relations, and has economic value as well, particularly where tourism is concerned.

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.”