I had the pleasure last week of hearing Robert Edsel of the Monuments Men Foundation speak last week in Winston-Salem, NC. It was a packed house at the Stevens Center, despite the rather high ticket price. I was pleased to see so many people turn out for an event about art and history, even if the crowd was less than diverse (mostly 60+, almost entirely Caucasian). I was also pleased that Mr. Edsel asked all WWII vets stand and be recognized for their service; a heartwarming moment.
Having read The Rape of Europa, seen the documentary, seen the somewhat fictionalized and Hollywood-ized version of the Monuments Men, and read other sources on what I call broadly the Rape of Europa Phenomenon (the systematic looting of private and public collections of art by the Nazis during WWII and the subsequent attempts to return those pieces), I did not expect to learn many new facts and figures from Mr. Edsel’s presentation. But I looked forward to an engaging evening and was not disappointed. I did learn some new things–including that an acquaintance of my mother’s, Mr. Frank Albright, was a Monuments Man.
I came to the event armed with my own questions about the Rape of Europa Phenomenon and the contemporary problems in Iraq, Syria, and other sites of Arab Spring revolutions. How would Mr. Edsel explain our terribly short memory regarding the vulnerability of art and other genres of cultural heritage? Is that lesson just one of the many we as a species refuse to learn from each terrible war?
Indeed even before I had the chance to ask my question regarding connections between WWII and today’s destruction and looting of art, Mr. Edsel brought up Iraq and Syria in his presentation. As did George Clooney, star of the Monuments Men movie, in a video clip from an interview. Clooney denounces the fact that it only took us 60 years to forget that art as a valuable commodity–valuable with respect to ideology, economics, and emotions–is vulnerable in war and should be protected. So while the lessons of that past seem to have been somewhat lost in today’s armed conflicts, at least among looters and some fighters, the intellectual community is still engaged with this problem and outraged at the violence against art we continue to see in places like Syria.
But after Mr. Edsel’s presentation, I still had a question about preventing further violence against art and cultural heritage during wartime. We in the archaeological community, seeing sabers rattling in 2002 and 2003 over possible armed conflict in Iraq, sent emails to members of Congress, made phone calls, signed petitions. These pleas for protection of museums, monuments, and archaeological sites, largely fell on deaf ears. The rest is history. The museum was looted, archaeological sites were ignored or actively damaged by members of coalition forces, historical evidence was lost forever. I asked Mr. Edsel: What more could we have done? What can we do now to protect these monuments today? How can we get the general public involved in a fight that has been largely in the hands of academics? Mr. Edsel reminded me (and the rest of the audience) there are now members of the US armed forces trained to protect cultural heritage. He also urged academics to not simply talk to one another, using our highbrow jargon, but to reach out to the public in an accessible way. Our phone calls and petitions could then be signed by more than a handful of professors; we would be joined by average citizens who also think art and architecture and archaeology are worth saving.
As I continue to think on these issues, however, I wonder if it was a fair question to ask, or rather if it is fair to compare the Rape of Europa Phenomenon with Iraq and Syria. The former was a systematic, well-organized operation with military and political support. The orders to loot museums and private collections came from the very top of Nazi hierarchy. Current destruction of sites in Syria seems sometimes accidental as collateral damage, sometimes ideologically motivated. The looting of the Baghdad Museum, however, was at the hands of opportunistic individuals motivated by financial gain or perhaps anger at the falling Saddam regime, which had so frequently propagandized ties to the cultural heritage of Mesopotamia. The Coalition’s colossal failure to protect the museum notwithstanding, the vandalism and thefts there were not carried out under local military orders.
This is a question that has troubled me for now over a decade: Why would the Iraqis themselves destroy their own history? It’s a question even good scholars like Lawrence Rothfield, with all due respect, have failed to sufficiently address. Again, Coalition forces ignored or were ignorant of the lessons of the Rape of Europa Phenomenon. Yet the Iraqi looters themselves seemed to not understand the consequences of their violence against their own history, early human history. Some of my favorite images of the happier phases of the Arab Spring revolutions are that of Egyptians forming a human chain around the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (even if questions about it have been raised) and the modern Library of Alexandria, testament to the understanding of the vulnerability of art and culture during conflict. The civilian safeguarding of Egyptian monuments (even if other Egyptians have been engaged in illegal excavation and theft) is also symbolic of an indigenous sense of protection and ownership of their history, especially poignant as that history had been in the hands of others for so many years. If the Egyptians had learned the lessons of the Baghdad Museum, why had the Iraqis not learned from the depredations of WWII? If these concepts were not appreciated through direct study of the Rape of Europa Phenomenon (which would be understandable), then why not through a broader understanding of the vulnerability of cultural heritage during wartime, because of art and artifacts’ combined ideological and commercial values?
I am without the resources to answer these last questions. I hope some commenters can offer their suggestions.