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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Real Heroes of Monuments Men

Roll out the red carpet – it is Oscar time. The annual pageant of Hollywood’s brightest stars continues this Sunday as the award show honors 2013’s best movies and performances. Absent from this year’s nominees is Monuments Men (directed by and starring George Clooney) since post-production delays pushed its debut in theaters to 2014. Even had it made the deadline, it may not have been nominated in many categories. The movie received mixed reviews and felt too convoluted--a combination of buddy-war movie, comedy, drama and treasure-hunt adventure. But no other movie I saw this year made me want to learn more about its subject. And for that, Monuments Men deserves an Oscar in my book.

For curious viewers, a first stop should be Robert Edsel’s 2009 book, The Monuments Men, the historical account upon which the movie is based. Put the book on hold. It’s worth the wait. And after you finish reading it, see if you agree with me that the wealth of information and profiles of real-life Monuments Men and women might have been better suited to a multi-part mini-series a la Band of Brothers instead of a feature-length film.

If you happen to live in the DC metro area, two area museums are currently hosting small Monuments Men exhibits based on holdings in area archives. And if you don’t, the online exhibits are actually richer and more in-depth than the physical exhibits.

The National Gallery of Art played a seminal role in the creation of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program (MFAA, the formal name of the “Monuments Men” commission). Their exhibit focuses on the Gallery’s role in its inception and on the experiences of a few real-life Monuments Men who donated their papers and photographs to the Gallery.

Also in DC, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art is hosting an exhibit of Monuments-related items in its collection through April 20, 2014, as well as two gallery talks in March. The online display includes numerous photos and a treasure trove of oral history interviews with many of the commission members. The Archives’ blog also has two excellent entries about the collections—The Real Monuments Men and Women and Artful Collaborators: James J. Rorimer and Rose Valland

Additionally, Sony Pictures released a great educational website based on the movie that contains biographies, interactive maps, lesson plans and video clips from that time.

I appreciated these exhibits and websites greatly after seeing the movie. They were satisfying in a way that the movie was not. So, I am grateful that the movie has brought wider recognition to the achievements of the MFAA commission and will ensure its story lives on. For rescuing 5 million pieces of art, the living monument of humanity’s greatness, in the midst of war… the Oscar goes to the real Monuments Men and women and the people who continue to tell their story.

- Ginger Hawkins, Centreville Regional Library

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