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Smithsonian and U.S. Army join forces to save works of art and culture threatened by war
Judy Woodruff: They're known as monuments officers, and a new collaboration between the U.S. Army and the Smithsonian Institution is expanding their numbers and capabilities in time of war.
Their mission, advise military commanders on how to minimize damage to art and other key sites during conflict and aid foreign allies whose cultural heritage is at risk.
Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Person: I have got the base the mask right here to secure it.
Jeffrey Brown: The National Museum of Pinelandia faces imminent attack, and its precious artifacts must be documented, photographed, packed, and moved to a new location within two hours, amid quickly changing circumstances.
On the scene to help, the U.S. Army's Corps of Monuments Officers, Colonel Scott DeJesse.
Col. Scott DeJesse, Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer, U.S. Army: You have to be able to speak both languages. You have to be able to speak the language of protecting cultural property, and you must also have your military language and understand the processes.
Jeffrey Brown: People have one or the other often, right?
Col. Scott DeJesse: Have one or the other. And we're bringing those world's together in a way that has not been done before.
Jeffrey Brown: Pinelandia, of course, is a fictional country. And this was a simulated training exercise in a large hall at the National Museum of the U.S. Army in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The precious art gathered from garage sales, flea markets, even dumpster diving, nothing worth more than a few dollars. But the military officers were the real thing, 21 specialists in art history, archaeology, curation, and other cultural heritage areas, six of them international officers here to train and network, the rest the first cohort of a joint initiative of the U.S. Army and the Smithsonian Institution.
Some were Reserve officers moving to this new unit, including Captain Sonia Dixon, who's also a doctoral candidate in art history.
Capt. Sonia Dixon, Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer, U.S. Army Reserve: I'm passionate about learning about so many different people and their cultures. And I am passionate about the military.
And to get the opportunity to do both of them at the same time and to show people, even if you come from an endemic background, you can still have practical ways to help people in the real world.
Jeffrey Brown: There were also six civilian cultural experts new to the military, having completed physical and other requirements, among that group, Hayden Bassett, an archaeologist and curator at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, where he's been using satellite imagery to document destruction in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Now he's also Captain Bassett in the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command.
Hayden Bassett, Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer, U.S. Army Reserve: This is our opportunity to engage with cultural heritage on another level.
I have always had a respect for the military. I never thought I would have the opportunity to take my particular skill set and apply it in a military context and serve in that capacity.
Jeffrey Brown: This was not the career path you were on.
Capt. Hayden Bassett: Certainly not.
Matt Damon, Actor: Monuments Men.
Jeffrey Brown: It's a new take on an idea that goes back to World War II popularized in books and film.
Matt Damon: So, you want to go into a war zone with some architects and artists and tell our boys what they can and cannot blow up?
George Clooney, Actor: That's right.
Jeffrey Brown: And a group then called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Task Force, often referred to as Monuments Men, scholar-soldiers rescuing artworks and other cultural treasures seized by the Nazis throughout Europe.
In more recent wars, however, the story has at times been less heroic, most notably in 2003 with the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, when the military was criticized for failing to heed warnings about the value of the collection and the need to protect it.
Cori Wegener, Director, Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative: That was a moment in time that really galvanized public opinion even more about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it really impacted our mission as well.
Jeffrey Brown: Cori Wegener, a museum curator, was then an Army reserve officer, deployed to the Baghdad museum to assess the damage and salvage what was possible.
Cori Wegener: Walking into those galleries and seeing smashed objects on the floor, even though I was an art museum curator, I didn't really know how to go about evaluating or salvaging objects. And I felt a little bit lost. I wanted to make sure nobody was placed in that position again.
Jeffrey Brown: Today, Wegener heads the Smithsonian's Cultural Rescue Initiative. And it was she and Colonel DeJesse who designed the intensive 10-day training program that included courses in forensic documentation and practical problems like drying out damaged artifacts, and briefings from international partners, such as a Ukrainian museum director working to secure objects there.
There was a symbolic moment at Arlington National Cemetery, with a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, including the nephew of a monuments officer killed in action in World War II, and the simulated museum evacuation, which included a jolting moment after one of the role players, acting as a security guard, accidentally, on purpose, put his foot through a painting.
That was just one moment of chaos amid constantly changing circumstances.
Capt. Sonia Dixon: It is not just we are looking at the art objects. Cultural heritage is so diverse, so dynamic, and, depending on the culture, it changes. It can be an object, and it can also be an intangible thing.
Jeffrey Brown: For his part, newly commissioned Captain Bassett was suddenly officer of the day, in charge of this operation, and found himself facing a commanding officer who arrived on the scene to ask some tough questions.
Person: Cultural artifacts, they are important, but they are number two to human life. That's the priority for our combat forces, OK? So if you need me to divert combat forces to protect the site, then I need to know that. Is it a company? Is it a platoon? What is it?
Jeffrey Brown: We're you surprised by his questions?
Capt. Hayden Bassett: Oh, absolutely.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes?
Capt. Hayden Bassett: Part of my job during that was to be able to effectively communicate why cultural heritage is important, why, in this case, the Army or the coalition forces were expending resources to invest in cultural heritage protection.
Jeffrey Brown: And that, of course, remains a question. Why and how much should the U.S. care about preserving culture in situations when lives are at stake?
Colonel Scott DeJesse, who, by the way, is also a painter in civilian life, is a veteran of cultural protection in a military context. And he puts the issue in military terms.
You're not suggesting that sending art historians out into the battlefield will win victories? Or you are?
Col. Scott DeJesse: I would say it's a strategic imperative.
The part that were moving into is the -- not only a justification for doing it, but a validation for doing it, to validate the success for the mission. If the commander says, our lines of effort are to build partnerships, strengthen our partnerships with the host nation, well, we're the experts that know, hey, this is how you build a partnership, by working, by protecting each other's -- what our societies mean.
Jeffrey Brown: Cori Wegener frames it from the civilian side, as a responsibility for museum and other professionals.
Cori Wegener: How can you ask the military to perform their duties for a treaty about protecting cultural heritage, if we don't tell them what cultural heritage is? We're teaching them how to do it, not just why they have to do it.
Person: Captain Hayden Bassett.
Jeffrey Brown: The training program's end was marked by a pinning ceremony for these official newly minted monuments officers, now ready to deploy as needed around the world.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
Judy Woodruff: Redefining the U.S. military.