That "greatest art heist in history" tagline on posters and in trailers for The Monuments Men, George Clooney's new war movie, makes World War II sound like a caper. It also frames wartime art conservation efforts, often a bureaucratic mess of miscommunications, as a story in which clear-cut good guys triumph.
Clooney used a more serious version of this good guy-bad guy language tin a press conference last month, talking about recent conflicts. "I'd spent a lot of time going through these villages in the Sudan and in Darfur where it wasn't enough that you killed [the villagers] and you killed their children," he said. "You had to destroy the things that they had created from generations before."
"[If] you take away their culture," continued Clooney, "that's when the society breaks down." He felt his screen play expressed this, and the art conservator he plays, based on real-life East Coast museum director George Stout, wants to prevent societal breakdown. But didn't Allies damage culture too?
"The Allies were blowing everything up," the actor-director acknowledged. "It really turned around after they bombed the Monte Cassino" - an early Benedictine Monastery southeast of Rome. "St. Benedict built that, and they destroyed it but they didn't have to." This part of the Monuments Men story, the messiness of missteps rather than the "take art back from Nazis" narrative, probably best correlates with the challenge conservators face even today: making sure the right people know what not to destroy.
The Monte Cassino bombing happened in 1943, relatively late in the war. Afterward, as Robert Edsel reports in the nonfiction book Monuments Men is based on, Germans and Italians called the Allies barbarians and the Vatican's spokesperson called the act "a piece of gross stupidity." Such reactions made archeological and conservation knowledge suddenly seem strategic. But just a year or two before, conversations like the following one from Edsel's book, between a civil affairs officer and a lieutenant named Wheeler, had played out:
Wheeler suggests men shouldn't be climbing on irreplaceable rungs.
"Just soldiers being soldiers," says the civil affairs officer.
"But this is Leptis Manga, the most complete Roman ruin in all of Africa."
"Never heard of it."
If a similar exchange were to unfold during a future conflict, maybe someone will pull out a smart phone and say, "I'll look it up on Arches." He'd be referring to the open source heritage inventory system rolled out in October 2013 by the Brentwood based Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and privately run, New York based World Monuments Fund (WMF). It pre-launched in January 2013 and then was improved based on feedback from various test users, some specifically invited (like the Flanders Heritage Agency), others interested in the open source platform. The idea is that government agencies, researchers and conservators will eventually use the system to inventory heritage sites and cultural monuments in their respective countries or internationally. They can make their inventories public, or share them on a need to know basis.
"If you've got your inventory, in a conflict time, you can give it to your allied forces and say, 'here's our inventory, it's geospatially referenced. You need this information because you need to watch for where certain things are,'" says Susan McDonald, head of Field Research at the GCI.
When she came to the Getty in 2008, after directing the New South Wales Heritage Office in Sydney for six years, the WMF and GCI had already begun their Iraq Cultural Heritage Conservation Initiative. After the Iraq conflict began, the museum-looting that took place was well-publicized, but other cultural sites also faced real risks, especially since the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) did not necessarily have clear geographical records of where all these sites were. It's not that the SBAH hadn't been doing its job; it's that its job was hard.
"The problem is when you can't say, 'The site is at the corner of Smith and Main Street,' but you can just say, 'It's near, oh, I don't know' - sometimes they're in the middle of nowhere," explains MacDonald. "So how do you tell people, 'No, that wouldn't be a good place to set up a camp' or something?"
The GCI, WMF and SBAH started to record Iraq's cultural heritage using a geodatabase but political upheaval made this process difficult - sometimes, they'd have to stop working altogether for indefinite periods. So the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, which had already been helping out with the Iraq effort, invited the GCI and WMF to finish developing the inventory system in Jordan and then apply it to Iraq later on.
They finished developing MEGA-Jordan - MEGA stands for Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities - in 2010, and it's since been deployed nationwide. In 2011, the GCI and WMF made a MEGA-Iraq version and hoped to develop it further, but the situation in Iraq continued to pose too many obstacles.
That's when work on the Getty's open-source Arches program began. The team included IT professionals - the Getty's Alison Dalgity understands the technical side, and an external consultant contributed to the project - as well as heritage specialists. They would figure out how to integrate current GIS, or geographical information systems, technologies with standards already embraced in the conservation field (for example, conservators largely agree that inventories should use vocabularies and designations that make them shareable between different countries). The system also had to be economical, since the expense of updating software and databases limits what certain heritage departments can do. "We wanted to kind of break this cycle of everyone having to create their own system," says MacDonald. "Our service to the field, if you like...is that we can create one base system so anyone in the world can download it and customize it."
Arches is user friendly, and you don't have to be an expert to install it. Entering a heritage site involves mapping its location, specifying who owns or administers it, classifying its type (is it a monastery, for instance?) and specifying any imminent risks. You can also enter people, activities and documents that may be associated with heritage sites.
No one organization or country has adopted Arches completely yet, though a number of them, like the Flanders Heritage Agency, the U.S. National Park Services and English Heritage, have experimented with it.
"There's a lot of countries that are really interested in this particular thing," say MacDonald, citing Libya specifically, whose recent revolution made inventorying a priority. "That's the basic premise of the whole system. If you know what heritage you've got and where it is, no matter what the situation is, be it a conflict or be it just a speculative developer in a big city, you prevent all sorts of difficult situations . . . . We just really need to be proactive in preventing damage."
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