George Clooney’s latest film project, “Monuments Men,” will highlight some of the vast efforts of the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) unit of the Allied Forces, who worked to protect cultural heritage in Europe during the height of World War II. The unit, commonly known as the ‘Monuments Men,’ included three men from the University of Wisconsin-Madison community: Gilbert Doane, Jesse Boell, and R. Wayne Hugoboom.
The ‘Monuments Men’ film poster, courtesy of Wikipedia. The movie will open February 7, 2014.
The danger the war posed to works of art and architecture in Europe was recognized early on, but it wasn’t until 1943 that the MFAA was formed to try to safeguard these treasures on the ground in the midst of combat. Many of the roughly 400 men of the MFAA were experienced librarians, archivists, museum personnel, archaeologists, and experts from other cultural institutions with knowledge in how to recognize and preserve works of cultural significance. They were primarily American and British, though experts were drawn from all more than 13 countries, including France, Australia, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
MFAA members worked with military leaders to try to minimize some of the destruction of the Allied invasion of Europe. They were an active part of preparation for battle, using maps and aerial photographs to avoid bombing significant sites. The Monuments Men were also on the front lines of battle, entering towns ahead of Allied ground troops to secure and preserve artistic works.
Recovery of looted artworks from Neuschwanstein Castle, 1945. From the James J. Rorimer papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Some of the most well-known work of the MFAA was in recovering caches of art and other items stored in hiding places across Europe. The movement and hiding of cultural artifacts was done both as part of looting by the Nazis and in legitimate evacuation and protection efforts by museums. Items recovered by the Monuments Men included paintings from the Uffizi, found stashed in a jail cell in the northern Italian town of San Leonardo; thousands of personal items stolen from France by the Nazi’s and stored in the famous Neuschwanstein Castle; and the bodies of Frederick the Great of Prussia and other famous German leaders, placed in a mine in Bernterode, Germany for protection. Perhaps most famous was the discovery of treasures housed in a complex of salt mines in Altaussee, Austria, which served as a hiding place for Austrian churches and museums, and later as a Nazi repository. The more than 6,500 paintings recovered from the mines included works by Michelangelo and Vermeer.
In 1945, the MFAA began the work of restitution of the items they had recovered. Central collection points were set up in Germany under the direction of General Eisenhower. Works were transferred to these points, then documented, studied, conserved, and, when possible, returned to their country of origin. The U.S. State Department took direction of MFAA efforts in mid-1946. Restitution work at the checkpoints continued until 1951, long after most of the MFAA personnel had returned home.
Lieutenant Daniel J. Kern and Karl Sieber examining a panel of the Ghent Altarpiece inside the Altaussee salt mine, 1945. From the Thomas Carr Howe papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Two Monuments Men were killed in action, both in Germany: Captain Walter Huchthausen, an American professor of architecture, and Major Ronald Edmund Balfour, a British historian.
The restitution and conservation work the MFAA began continues even today. Major art museums, non-profit groups, and individuals are still struggling to determine the provenance and ownership of items looted during WWII. The recovery of treasures continues as well: 2010 and 2012 both saw discoveries of collections of art taken during the war.
Next week we’ll post more about Gilbert Doane and Jesse Boell, UW-Madison librarians and archivists who were part of the MFAA.
For more information on the Monuments Men and their work, visit:
The Monuments Men Foundation
‘The Rape of Europa’ film website
Wikipedia articles on the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, and Nazi looting
The Archives of American Art’s Monuments Men exhibit
A Smithsonian Magazine article about the work of the Monuments Men in Italy
A New York Times piece about Monuments Women
A National Archives piece about the recovery work in the Merkers Salt Mine
By Elzbieta Beck for UW-Madison Archives
For more information about this story or UW-Madison campus history, visit http://archives.library.wisc.edu. On Wisconsin!