FORT BELVOIR, Va. – The army reserve officers worked with great efficiency.
For much of the afternoon they had painstakingly documented and carefully packaged cultural treasures from the Smithsonia Museum in Pinelandia—a land that could soon be under siege. Their mission – to evacuate important artifacts from the museum – went well.
But then a distant, lunch-preoccupied guard accidentally put his foot through a precious painting leaning against a table.
The room went quiet. Then the museum’s collection manager had a suspicion. The agents had a problem.
“A failure of our troops to secure the artifacts while we were handling them,” said Capt. Blake Ruehrwein, 40, of Rehoboth, Massachusetts, afterwards.
Fortunately for the officers, it was all just an exercise in a fictional museum and country. The accident, which seemed at least somewhat intentional, would help them learn to deal with crises and keep their heads on their toes, instructors later said.
In reality, the trainees are 21 cultural professionals with special expertise in everything from African history to spatial computing. A handful here are international cultural property protection officers for training and networking. The other 15 are part of a cadre of academics and art curators who are being transformed into Army Monuments Officers.
Their charge? Working in a military capacity to identify and preserve cultural treasures around the world under threat from conflict, as did the Monuments Men of World War II who recovered millions of artifacts looted by the Nazis.
“Make no mistake,” said Corine Wegener, the director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, a partner in the 10-day training program. “These are all soldiers.”
At a graduation ceremony on Friday, after years of bureaucratic delay, class members are expected to complete their formal appointment as part of the first new class of modern monument men and women in a generation.
The ceremony comes after intensive training that includes courses in first aid and forensic documentation, emergency preparedness, and the nuts and bolts of war zone conservation – how to dry, handle and rescue damaged items.
“I am both exhausted and energized,” said Capt. Jessica Wagner, 34, of St. Louis, Michigan, who specializes, not coincidentally, in heritage preservation and repatriation of cultural property.
On Wednesday, with the pressure on and the clock ticking, agents at the Smithsonia developed a detailed cataloging system to log the items. An officer carefully placed foam in a ceramic object to catch it, then wrapped it in tissue paper and capped it. Lacking extra paper, he used a box cutter to form a piece of cardboard to wrap around the object.
Across the room, a concerned collection manager yelled at another agent who was trying to get hold of a painting, “We can’t have tape on this one!”
Once in the field, the officers will not directly search for missing artwork, but instead serve as a series of scientific contacts for military commanders and local authorities. For example, they may advise against an air strike on a particular location, or suggest an attempt to prevent looting in an area where ground fighting has begun.
“The capability that this new Monument Men and Women brings is a better understanding of the environment so commanders can use resources in the right direction,” said Colonel Scott DeJesse, an Army Reserve officer who is one of the leaders of the effort.
“If you want to build stronger partnerships, this is how you do it,” he added. “By trust, by showing we care.”
The specialists will be part of the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, which is headquartered in Fort Bragg, NC. As reservists, they will not be deployed full-time, but will be added to military units as needed. That could include working in war zones where team members could come under attack. Hence the training.
“The risks of endangering myself to protect cultural heritage are worth it,” said Captain 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 (mainly men but also a few dozen women) who, from 1943 to 1951, used their art expertise abroad. Together they tracked down millions of works of art, books and other valuables stolen by the Germans during wartime. Their stories were incorporated and passed on in the work of Robert M. Edsel, eventually forming the basis for a 2014 George Clooney film, “The Monuments Men.”
In 2019, the Smithsonian Institution and the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command agreed to join forces to protect cultural property in conflict zones and develop a training program for Army Reserve Civil Affairs Soldiers.
Training was due to start in 2020, but the pandemic played a role in a delay in hiring and bureaucracy slowed down the process. During World War II, the Monuments Men were soldiers who had already enlisted and happened to have the specialized skills needed. In this iteration of the program, for the first time, the military has directly recruited civilian specialists in the field of cultural heritage.
Another new class of specialists could soon follow suit, Ms Wegener said.
It has been almost 20 years since Mrs. Wegener worked as an art, monuments and archives civil servant in Baghdad as part of a very small team. She knew the military needed more highly trained civilian experts. And luckily, she said, the officials agreed.
“This is my dream come true for me,” she said. “You don’t have to wait for something bad to happen. You now have this network that we have created – and that they are creating for themselves to get to know each other and train together. We help bring this opportunity to the world.”
Six of the 21 people in the current Army Monuments Officer class, including Captain Ruehrwein and Captain Wagner, are new directly appointed officers. Nine other participants were already in army reserve when they signed up for the training, and have either been transferred to command or are busy; the last six are international cultural property protection officers within their national armies.
Captain Wagner has worked in education and outreach for various cultural institutions, most recently the US Naval War College Museum. Years ago, in graduate school, she said she spent time researching those in the World War II Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Unit for her dissertation.
“Would I like to do that?” she remembered asking herself.
In an email this week, after a day of training, she acknowledged that wearing a uniform still “feels a little out of the body to me”. Building up military habits like saluting, using courtesies, and taking off hats indoors sometimes felt strange. And Captain Wagner and her colleagues will eventually have to pass one of the Army’s physical diagnostic tests, too.
But in this group, Captain Wagner said, she has found her “people.”
“If you had asked me five years ago if I would ever serve in the United States Army, dressed in a uniform, sitting in Smithsonian Castle, surrounded by military soldiers from all over the world, discussing how best to preserve cultural heritage in conflict situations. being protected, wouldn’t have believed it,” she said. “But here we are.”
Graham Bowley contributed to the report.