The real Monuments Men – Swansea expert tells story behind new George Clooney film

The Monuments Men, a new film starring and directed by George Clooney, with Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray and John Goodman, is a chance to “relearn lessons” about works of art in war zones, says a Swansea expert writing in BBC History magazine.

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Monuments Men 1
The Monuments Men were a group of men and women from thirteen nations, most of whom volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section in the Allied Forces during World War Two.

Most were museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists. Their job was to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could. 

‌The film, released in the UK on 14 February, is based on a book by Robert Edsel. 
Watch the film trailer.

‌Dr Nigel Pollard, associate professor in the College of Arts and Humanities is an international expert in the protection of cultural sites in conflict zones around the world.  

Writing in BBC History magazine, he tells the story of the real-life Monuments Men, who had to strive to protect what they could, amidst the chaos of war.

Monuments Men 2‌‌Dr Pollard reveals that:

‌- Allied troops ransacked the University of Naples scientific collections and used the National Museum, with its famous collections from Pompeii, as a store for flammable medical supplies. 

- The university’s library had already been burned by retreating German forces. 

- Artwork taken to Germany by the Nazis was discovered in a salt mine in Austria, including the Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a fabulously vivid piece of early 15th-century painting executed on 12 wooden panels by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. 

- The Madonna of Bruges, a marble Madonna and Child made by Michelangelo, was also discovered in the Austrian salt mine.

- Printed handbooks listing monuments by region were produced and distributed widely among army headquarters, sometimes down to battalion level,  Guidelines were set out on how to guard museums and historic buildings from looters, as well as the best ways of protecting them from damage by occupying troops.

‌Dr Nigel Pollard said:

“When the war in Europe ended, many of the monuments officers returned to their peacetime occupations. 
Before they did so, however, they produced a series of detailed reports on their experiences, preserving invaluable knowledge about the protection of cultural property in wartime. 
Sadly this wealth of experience was soon forgotten. The UK, for instance – largely due to historical accident and lack of parliamentary time – remains one of the few major powers not to have ratified the 1954 Hague Convention requiring the protection of cultural property in wartime. 
With the release of The Monuments Men, we have a unique opportunity to relearn the lessons of its real-life counterparts.”
Nigel PollardDr Pollard’s article is in the February 2014 issue of BBC History magazine

‌Dr Pollard (pictured left) is a board member of the UK and Ireland Blue Shield Committee, which advocates the protection of cultural sites in conflict

Study history and classics at Swansea.