Monument Men at VA Museum

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.

Before the Russian invasion, experts worked to identify cultural sites, like St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv, that warrant special protection, the sort of task soon to be undertaken by U.S. Army expert specialists whose hiring has been delayed. 

St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv (Sean Gallup/Getty Images).

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. 

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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.

The Monuments Men poster.jpg

Poster for the movie, 2014.

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.”

For the past year and a half, the team at the Virginia lab, part of a broader network of about 10 people, has trained soldiers deploying to East Africa in preserving an area’s cultural heritage and has used satellite imagery to monitor sites affected by natural disasters in Honduras and Haiti, and by armed conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and Afghanistan.

[The Virginia] team has found not only destruction caused by conflict in the east and in Crimea, but also construction of new monuments. For example, Savur-Mohyla is the site of a Bronze Age burial mound, or kurgan. A World War II memorial the Soviets built on the site was destroyed during fighting in 2014. Now that monument is being reconstructed with Russian aid.

Before the war in Ukraine, the monitoring by Bassett’s team had included sites in the east of the country and in Crimea, regions that were then already occupied by Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists. Bassett said the team had found not only destruction caused by conflict there, but also construction of new monuments. For example, Savur-Mohyla is the site of a Bronze Age burial mound, or kurgan. A World War II memorial the Soviets built on the site was destroyed during fighting in 2014. Now that monument is being reconstructed with Russian aid.

It is among the more than a thousand sites that could be harmed by the broadening conflict, according to the lab’s growing database, the kind of resource that Bassett hopes could potentially play a part in the work of the Army unit when it becomes active.

“This is going to allow myself and other incoming monuments officers to hit the ground running,” he said, of the lab’s work generally. “I am very much looking forward to that moment. Once we are in uniform, we will be doing this work in the U.S. but also have the opportunity to do some with boots on the ground in a meaningful way.”

 



Categories: cultural icons, International Events, Issues, Local

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