Editors’ Note: Excerpted from The New York Times, February 25, 2022.
By Graham Bowley
For months before the bombs started falling, Hayden Bassett watched over the cultural riches of Ukraine — the cathedrals of Kyiv, the historic buildings of Lviv, museums across the country and the ancient burial sites that dot its steppes.
Hayden Bassett, an archaeologist and director of the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, has monitored and mapped much of [Ukraine’s] national heritage as part of a civilian effort to mark the sites that could be devastated by war.
Using satellite imagery, Bassett, 32, an archaeologist and director of the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, has monitored and mapped much of the country’s national heritage as part of a civilian effort to mark the sites that could be devastated by war.
This is the kind of job envisioned for a cadre of U.S. Army specialists being hired to succeed the storied Monuments Men of World War II, who recovered millions of European treasures looted by the Nazis. But more than two years after the Army, with some fanfare, announced the new effort, styled after the old, of dedicated art experts working in a military capacity to preserve the treasures of the past, the program is still not up and running.
“There are a lot of growing pains,” acknowledged Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. “There is this capability,” she said, “that the Army ought to have that’s not available to commanders at the moment.” The lack of that capability has become pressing as Russia invades, and explosions threaten the golden domes and ancient frescoes of Ukraine’s cities.
The Monuments Men is a 2014 war film loosely based on the 2007 nonfiction book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. It follows an Allied group from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program that is given the task of finding and saving pieces of art and other culturally important items before Nazis destroy or steal them, during World War II.
Elizabeth Varner, a specialist in museum administration and cultural property law, who has been selected as a candidate, said she is excited to qualify for a service that is “desperately needed.” “Cultural property protection is a continuous process,” she said. “It takes a long time to get ready to respond and once events actually happen you are behind if you have not prepared already.”