National WWII Museum Plans Permanent Exhibit Honoring Monuments Men

Jan 30, 2014

An artist's rendering of the Monuments Men exhibit planned for the National World War II Museum.
Credit National World War II Museum

The National WWII Museum is planning a tribute to the men and women of the Monuments Men. The special soldiers in the little-known unit rescued stolen cultural treasures from Nazi destruction.

Ever hear about the Monuments Men?

Well, you will.

They were a crack team of art experts who ensured the salvation of priceless works of art. A film based on their story — starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchette and New Orleans’ own John Goodman — is being released next week.

It’s called Monuments Men, and is based on a book by World War II museum trustee Robert Edsel.

Edsel hadn’t heard of them either.

“I was living in Florence, Italy, in 1996. I’d moved there to pursue finding some new career. It turned out that what I did was carve out time and allowed the new career to find me,” Edsel says. “This is a story that I tripped on quite by accident walking across the Ponte Vecchio one day — the only bridge in Florence not destroyed by the Nazis when they fled the city in August 1944. And I wondered how in the face of the most destructive conflict in history, a war that cost the lives of 65 million people, so many of the works of art and other cultural treasures survived? And who were the people that saved them? And I wasn’t embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer, but I was hugely embarrassed that it never occurred to me to ask the question.”

So, he asked around.

Edsel ended up co-producing a documentary film based on the book The Rape of Europa, about looted artwork. In that research, he came across the story of the Monuments Men, which is a bit off because there were women involved. And 13 nations participated.

Edsel describes the people involved:

An artist's view of the National WWII Museum's planned Liberation Pavilion. It will be the museum's final permanent exhibition hall when it opens in 2016 or 2017.
Credit National World War II Museum

“Men and women, middle-aged museum directors, curators, art historians — artists themselves who volunteered for service during World War II to become a new kind of soldier,  one charged with saving rather than destroying.”

But movies aren’t as sticklers for the truth as a museum, so sometimes the characters in the movie are a mix of different people.

John Goodman explained his part before hosting a special screening of the film at the museum’s theater.

“He’s based on a real person,” Goodman said. “They changed the name just in case — they didn’t want me… in case I screwed up.”

“After all, it’s a movie,” he continued. “It’s fiction based on reality. It’s heightened reality.”

Goodman says he wants to learn more about the real team.

“Mr. Edsel’s written a couple more books that I’m interested in. And learn more about the people that were trying to protect the fingerprints of western civilization from being wiped off the face of the map.”

And that’s where the museum comes in.

A permanent, 1,700-square-foot exhibit is planned for the upcoming Liberation Pavilion, the last of the permanent exhibition halls at the museum. It will look like one of the many salt mines where art treasures were stashed during the war.

Museum President Nick Mueller says there will be electronic kiosks to show the paintings that were recovered. “War stations” will be set up for an interactive experience.

He says the new building seemed a natural home for the exhibit.

“We are telling this story in the Liberation Pavilion because the Liberation Pavilion talks about the discovery of the camps — the concentration camps — at the end of the war, the cost of victory, the stories of liberation. And there’s also a chapel reflecting on the spiritual dimensions of the war and the chaplains’ story.”

Edsel’s Monuments Men Foundation will also be asking the public to join in the search for art that’s still missing. Information is available on the foundation’s website.

In the meantime, the museum has raised about $7 million so far for the new pavilion, which is expected to cost up to $30 million. It’s planned to open in 2016 or 2017.