Met Museum Trains ‘Monuments Men’ to Save Ukrainian Cultural Heritage

A group of military personnel, consisting of both men and women, gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to learn about the weaponization of art history. This visit was part of a revived program by the Army to deploy officers with arts training in conflict zones to protect cultural heritage, similar to the Monuments Men of World War II. The program had been interrupted by Covid-19 and bureaucratic hurdles but was now back on track.

Captain Blake Ruehrwein, an Air Force veteran who also works at the Naval War College Museum, instructed the new unit during a museum workshop. He emphasized the importance of protecting culture and urged the officers to apply what they learned. Alison Hokanson, an associate curator of European paintings, explained the significance of a landscape painting by Arkhyp Kuindzhi, highlighting the ongoing reclassification of artworks and artists as Ukrainian instead of Russian. This reclassification is a response to Russia's attempts to erase Ukrainian identity and cultural heritage.

The collaboration between the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, the Met Museum, and the Army aims to help soldiers understand the role of art in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. They focus on documenting evidence of crimes and developing methodologies for conservation and documentation. The destruction of cultural sites in the war has been extensive, and efforts are being made to preserve and restore them.

Captain Ruehrwein had previously participated in a simulation at the National Museum of the United States Army, where officers learned forensic documentation, emergency preparedness, and conservation techniques for war zones. They also visited Honduras to explore ways to strengthen efforts in tracking and evaluating world heritage sites.

Lisa Pilosi, head of objects conservation at the Met, stressed the importance of photographing objects before touching or moving them, as the photographs can serve as evidence in criminal court. The Met has been collaborating with the military since 2013, assisting in the protection and restoration of cultural heritage. Pilosi has been actively engaged in disaster response and has been meeting with the U.S. State Department and Ukrainian officials to address these issues.

The reclassification of Ukrainian art has garnered mixed public responses, with some criticizing the changes in wall texts and artists' nationalities. The Met has faced backlash, receiving critical letters and even threats of violence. As a result, they have increased security measures and placed some works behind protective glass. However, the museum remains committed to its research into reclassifying Ukrainian artists and accurately presenting their work.

Max Hollein, the Met director, stated that scholarly thinking is evolving due to increased awareness and attention to Ukrainian culture and history since the Russian invasion. The museum is dedicated to pursuing knowledge and sharing its research and findings with visitors and scholars.

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