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National Gallery, key to founding Monuments Men, tells true history in exhibit

'The Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art: Behind the History'

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Washington's National Gallery of Art played a crucial role in establishing the actual "Monuments Men", and is telling the true story behind the film in a fascinating free exhibit now until Sept. 1.

German troops, retreating from Florence, blew up all the city's magnificent bridges -- except the famed Ponte Vecchio. Photo in "The Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art: Behind the History".
Frederick Hartt Papers, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

"The Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art: Behind the History", with World War Two-era photographs, documents, and memorabilia -- many never before exhibited -- is also online.

Twelve key figures associated with the monuments men and women, World War Two heroes who protected and saved Europe's cultural treasures, had been connected to the National Gallery of Art (NGA) before the war. In later years, three of them held important positions at the museum. Here are a few:

  • National Gallery director (1938-1956) David Finley was a moving force behind establishing what eventually became the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program, a.k.a. "Monuments Men".
  • Lieutenant Lamont Moore was an MFAA officer in charge of evacuating looted art from the iron mine at Hüttenweg near Siegen, the first vast Nazi storehouse discovered in Germany. Ultimately, the MFAA discovered more than 1,000 secret storage sites, and recovered some five million precious items from them. Before the war, Moore was curator of education at the National Gallery, and returned to that position in 1946.
  • Lieutenant Charles Parkhurst, a Monuments Man in Germany (1945-1946), had been an NGA assistant curator before enlisting. He returned to the museum as assistant director and chief curator (1971-1983).
  • Monuments woman WAC Captain Edith Standen even dug up a Nazi-looted ancient bronze cannon with her bare hands. Standen served as director (1946-1947) of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point for the recovered art treasures stolen by the Nazis. Before the war, Standen had been secretary to the Widener Collection, one of the great founding collections of the National Gallery.

The exhibit highlights the roles of these individuals and of the museum, which served as the lobbying arm and operations center in Washington. Several items also illuminate the extent of damage and looting:

  • Photo of a destroyed bridge in Florence. German troops, retreating from Florence, blew up all the city's magnificent bridges -- except the famed Ponte Vecchio.
  • Photo of a large cache of artworks from the renowned Uffizi and other Florentine museums, stashed in a local jail in northern Italy.
  • Photo shows returning these works at Florence's Piazza della Signoria. Jubilant celebrations with heralds and trumpeters greeted the treasures as they re-entered the city.
  • Photo of the foundry at Blanc Mesnil, where Nazi occupiers of France had taken church bells, statues, and other metal historic items to be melted for armaments.
  • Photo, and receipt for the return, of 73 cases of stained-glass windows stolen from Strasbourg Cathedral and buried in a salt mine at Heilbronn, Germany.
  • "OFF LIMITS" sign, and a photo of such a sign at the entry road to Mont Saint-Michel, the Gothic-style Benedictine abbey in Normandy.
  • Embroidered arm band and stationery of the art-looting Nazi organization Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR).
  • Photo of ERR headquarters at "Mad" King Ludwig II's castle, Neuschwanstein, depository for thousands of artworks stolen from French Jewish collectors, including the Rothschild banking family.

The museum will offer a lecture, "The Inside Story: The Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art detailing its relationship with the Monuments Men of the MFAA", on March 16 at 2:00 P.M. Speakers will include Lynn H. Nicholas, author of "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War", and National Gallery experts.

Other Washington institutions that played major roles in the protection and rescue of Europe's cultural heritage are also hosting free exhibitions and programs:

As Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said on May 26, 1944, less than two weeks before D-Day, World War Two battles in Europe were "designed to preserve our civilization..."

He directed every military commander "to protect and respect Europe's "historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve."

Even with all these heroic efforts, 70 years later, "hundreds of thousands of these cultural items are still missing," says Robert M. Edsel, president of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, and also author of "The Monuments Men", the basis for the film.

For more info: National Gallery of Art, www.nga.gov, on the National Mall, Constitution Avenue between Constitution Avenue between 4th and 7th Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C. Free. 202-737-4215. National Archives, www.archives.gov, on the National Mall, Constitution Avenue and 9th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-357-5000, or www.archives.gov/calendar. Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, www.aaa.si.edu, Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, 8th and F Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-633-7940. Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org, 866-WWII-ART.