A Monument to Memory

By Rachel O'Neill

Control of the archive – variously defined – means control of society and thus control of determining history’s winners and losers.1

Or, as Hollywood would have it:

While we must, and will, win this war, we must also remember the high price that’ll be paid if the very foundation of modern civilization is destroyed.

So opines George Clooney in the wonderfully melodramatic trailer for the hotly anticipated movie: The Monuments Men

Based on Robert M. Edsel’s book novel The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, this is the remarkable true story of six men, handpicked to rescue the art masterpieces of the world from Nazi thieves under direct orders from Hitler during World War II.

In total, there were 345 men and women from thirteen nations who joined the MFAA – Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Section of the Allied armies. Established in June 1943, members of the MFAA came from a variety of arts based backgrounds, art historians, curators, artists, architects and educators and went on to illustrious careers at America’s top Arts Institutions. Many spent up to six years in Europe during and post WWII protecting monuments, locating artworks, and in the years following the end of the war, handling the restitution of works of art and cultural works stolen by Hitler and the Nazis.

While it may be all too obvious why the recovery and restitution of paintings, sculptures, artifacts and documents stolen during WWII was so important to the Allies, it is worth stressing how vitally important having these works restored to their rightful owners and places is, in terms of serving to reconnect those people, torn apart by war on a scale never before experienced, to their cultural past. While Schwartz and Moore raise questions and concerns throughout their essay: Archives, Records, Power, in their conclusion there can be no doubting the importance of archives:

Memory, like history, is rooted in archives. Without archives, memory falters, knowledge of accomplishments fades, pride in a shared past dissipates. Archives counter these losses. Archives contain the evidence of what went before. This is particularly germane in the modern world…the archive remains as one foundation of historical understanding. Archives validate our experiences, our perceptions, our narratives, our stories. Archives are our memories. 2

The drive to collect, organize and conserve materials from the past seems an innately human one. As does the converse: the desire to destroy, limit access to, or hoard, in order to exert some sort of power or control over others is equally a uniquely human characteristic.

Marlene Manoff, in her essay Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines looks to the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who, she states:

…claims that Freudian psychoanalysis offers us a theory of the archive premised on two conflicting forces. One is a death drive and the other is a conservation or archive drive that is linked to the pleasure principle. In this formulation, the archive affirms the past, present, and future; it preserves the records of the past and it embodies the promise of the present to the future.13 3

Manoff goes on to point out:

The stakes in this struggle can be very high. In 1992, during the war between Abkhazia and Georgia, four Georgian members of the National Guard threw incendiary grenades into the Abkhazian State Archives resulting in the destruction of much of the history of the entire region.17 According to Derrida’s formulation, such destruction represents the failure of the present in its responsibility to the future. Similar losses have recently occurred in Iraq. In the aftermath of the U.S. led “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Iraq’s National Museum, National Library, National Archives, and other repositories have been looted and burned. A chorus of voices has declared this a cultural disaster of immense proportion.4

One of those voices was journalist Adam Goodheart whose article in the New York Times Missing: A Vase, a Book, a Bird and 10,000 Years of History, Mannoff cites, was informed of the devastating significance of the Iraq’s cultural losses by John Malcolm Russell, Professor of Art History and Archeology at Massachusetts College of Art.

In his own, eloquent essay, Why Should We Care?, Russell explains how he found himself responding to western media with the cover-all response: “Because Iraq is the cradle of civilization” 5 when media asked why the world should care about the looting of the Iraq museum in April 2003. But for Russell and his Iraqi born colleagues on site, the significance of the loss went even deeper than the fact that artifacts had been stolen or destroyed. He describes one of his most profound experiences in the days immediately following the looting of the Iraq Museum was participating in an NPR recorded discussion via satellite phone with Ahmed Abdullah Faddam, professor of sculpture at Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts:

Professor Ahmed was very eloquent about what the losses at the museums and libraries meant for the future of the Iraqi people… But his most chilling comment transcended nationalism: “What can you do with a man who is ignorant and doesn’t have any culture? He is just like a dead man.”6

Russell goes on to comment:

He is also a very dangerous man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled with dross. Having a past, having a sense of who we are, allows us to measure our-selves against what political demagogues or market forces say we should be.7

In terms of an on-going commitment to protect the world’s cultural heritage in 2006 the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield was formed, and in September 2008, the U.S. finally ratified the 1954 Hague Convention (Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict), the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross. Between the USCBS and Clooney’s homage to the Monuments Men perhaps there is hope yet for the world’s memories!

1.Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook: Archives, Records, PowerArchival Science 2: 1–19, © 2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers
3.Marlene Manoff: Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines, 2004 portal: Libraries and the Academy 4(1): 9-25
5.John Malcolm Russell,Why Should We Care? Art Journal, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 2003), pp. 22-29.

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Rachel O'Neill

SILS Student at Pratt Institute

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