Conference reflects on Monuments Men, teaches lessons for the future

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During WWII, the Mona Lisa was moved five times to keep it safe from looters.

But other works of art and cultural materials weren’t so lucky.  Under the direction of Adolf Hitler, the Germans looted paintings, church bells, Torahs, and more.

Enter the Monuments Men, who were cultural-preservation officers recruited by the Allies to protect and recover art during the war.

Robert Edsel, who has written three books on the subject, visited campus Oct. 19 to deliver the keynote speech for a three-day conference titled Preserving Cultural Heritage in Times of Conflict.

“As the war progressed and the degree of theft became known as countries were liberated, [the Monuments Men] quickly became art detectives trying to track down these looted works of art,” Edsel said.

The conference kicked off with a free film screening of The Monuments Men (2014), which was inspired by one of Edsel’s books and directed by George Clooney. Over the next few days, national scholars with a variety of expertise addressed critical questions regarding theft of cultural property, art, and antiquities during wartime. The Monuments Men — many of whom were museum curators, art historians, archivists, and artists themselves — served as an example of how cultural property could be saved in times of conflict.

One of those men spent time on Colgate’s hill.

Gilbert Harry Doane, Class of 1918, served in England as the Officers Candidate School of the European Civil Affairs Division librarian, managing documents and lists of protected monuments, according to the Monuments Men Foundation website.

The problems the men and women were seeking to solve are still happening today. One current example, Edsel said, is the architecture destroyed by ISIS in Palmyra, Syria, in 2016. “This is a challenge of our times, how to go about protecting these parts of our shared cultural heritage, but we’re not without guideposts.”

Associate art and art history professor Carolyn Guile said, “Our cultural property is being destroyed on a scale now, not seen since the second world war.” This, she explained, was part of the motivation for the event, which Guile organized with Michael Danti, NEH associate professor of the humanities.

Throughout the weekend, visiting scholars addressed topics including moral and legal claims to cultural property, cultural heritage preservation post conflict, and the U.S. response to illicit antiquities trafficking.