New ‘monument officers’ gear up to protect wartime art
FORT BELVOIR, Va. — The Army Reserve officers worked with great efficiency.
For much of the afternoon, they had been meticulously documenting and carefully packing the cultural treasures of the Smithsonia Museum in Pinelandia – a country that could soon be under siege. Their mission – to evacuate important objects from the museum – was going well.
But then an aloof, lunch-concerned security guard accidentally put his foot through a valuable board leaning against a table.
The room became silent. Then the head of the museum’s collection colluded. The officers had a problem.
“A failure of our forces to secure the artifacts while we were handling them,” Captain Blake Ruehrwein, 40, of Rehoboth, Mass., said afterwards.
Luckily for the officers, it was just a training exercise taking place in a fictional museum and country. The crash, which seemed at least somewhat intentional, would help them learn how to deal with crisis and keep their heads on their head, the instructors later said.
In reality, the trainees are 21 cultural professionals with particular expertise in everything from African history to spatial computing. A handful of international cultural property protection officers are here for training and networking. The other 15 are part of a group of academics and arts curators who are being turned into Army Monuments Officers.
Their charge? Working in a military capacity to identify and preserve cultural treasures around the world that are threatened by conflict, much like the World War II Monuments Men who recovered millions of Nazi-looted artifacts.
“Make no mistake about it,” said Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, a partner in the 10-day training program. “They are all soldiers.”
At a graduation ceremony on Friday, after a year-long bureaucratic delay, members of the class are expected to conclude their formal appointments as part of the first new class of modern monument men and women in a generation. .
The ceremony comes after intensive training that includes lessons in first aid and forensic documentation, emergency preparedness and the nuts and bolts of warzone preservation – how to dry, handle and recover items. damaged.
“I am both exhausted and full of energy,” said Captain Jessica Wagner, 34, of St. Louis, Michigan, who specializes, not coincidentally, in heritage preservation and the repatriation of cultural property.
On Wednesday in the Smithsonia, with the pressure and time ticking on, officers developed a detailed cataloging system to record items. An officer carefully placed foam inside a ceramic item to protect it, then wrapped it in tissue paper and covered it. Lacking extra paper, he used a box cutter to fashion a piece of cardboard that he could wrap around the object.
Across the room, an anxious collection officer shouted at another officer trying to secure a painting: ‘We can’t put tape this!”
Once in the field, officers will not directly track down missing artwork, but rather serve as scholarly intermediaries for military commanders and local authorities. They may advise against an airstrike on a certain site, for example, or suggest an attempt to prevent looting in an area where ground fighting has begun.
“The capability that these new men and women of Monument bring is a better understanding of the environment so commanders can apply resources in the right directions,” said Col. Scott DeJesse, an Army Reserve officer. who is one of the leaders of the effort.
“If you want to build stronger partnerships, that’s how you do it,” he added. “By trust, by showing that we care about you.”
Specialists are to be part of the Army’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, which is headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As reservists, they will not be deployed full-time, but will be attached to military units as needed. This could involve working in war zones where team members could come under fire. Hence the training.
“The risks of putting myself at risk to safeguard cultural heritage are worth it,” said Capt. Ruehrwein, an Air Force veteran who works in education and outreach at the Naval War College Museum in Newport, RI “I believe so strongly in the importance and value of the arts for everyone.
The efforts are reminiscent of those of the Monuments Men – 345 people (mostly men but also several dozen women) who applied their artistic expertise overseas from 1943 to 1951. Together they recovered millions of works of art, of books and other valuables stolen by the Germans in wartime. . Their stories were recorded and relayed in the work of Robert M. Edsel and eventually formed the basis of a 2014 George Clooney film, “The Monuments Men.”
In 2019, the Smithsonian Institution and the Army’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command agreed to join forces to protect cultural property in conflict zones and develop a training program for Civil Affairs Soldiers from the army reserve.
Training was supposed to start in 2020, but the pandemic played a role in delaying hiring and bureaucracy slowed the process. During World War II, Monuments Men were soldiers who had already enlisted and possessed the necessary specialist skills. In this iteration of the program, the military, for the first time, has directly commissioned civilian cultural heritage specialists into its ranks.
Another new class of specialists may soon follow this one, Ms Wegener said.
It has been almost 20 years since Ms Wegener worked as an arts, monuments and archives officer in Baghdad within a very small team. She knew the military needed more highly trained experts in civilian affairs. And thankfully, she says, officials agreed.
“For me, this is my dream come true,” she said. “You don’t have to wait for something bad to happen. You now have this network that we created — and that they create themselves by getting to know each other and training together. We are helping to provide that capability to the world.
Six of the 21 current class of Army Monuments Officers, including Captain Ruehrwein and Captain Wagner, are new, directly appointed officers. Nine other participants were already part of the Army Reserve when they signed up for the training and have either transferred to command or are in the process of doing so; the last six are international officers for the protection of cultural property within their national armies.
Captain Wagner has worked in education and public outreach for several cultural institutions, most recently including the US Naval War College Museum. Years ago in graduate school, she said she spent time researching those in the WWII Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Unit for her dissertation. .
“Would I be ready to do that? she remembers wondering.
In an email this week after a day of practice, she admitted that being in uniform “still feels a bit out of body for me.” Building military habits like saluting, using courtesy titles, and removing hats indoors felt alien at times. And Captain Wagner and his peers will also eventually have to pass one of the Army’s physical diagnostic tests.
But in that group, Captain Wagner said, she found her “people.”
“If you had asked me five years ago if I would ever be in the US military, wearing a uniform, sitting in the Smithsonian castle, surrounded by military soldiers from around the world, discussing the best way to protect heritage cultural conflict, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. “But here we are.”
Graham Bowley contributed reporting.