George Clooney may be bringing “The Monuments Men” to the silver screen, but two university of Wisconsin alumni were part of the real life military units tasked with rescuing Europe’s cultural treasures which inspired the film.
The film portrays the actions of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the United States Army and its efforts to rescue and restore artifacts and treasures after they were stolen during World War II.
MFAA members would sneak through areas of combat to find paintings, items owned by Holocaust victims and works of art from museums across the world, Edward Van Gemert, UW libraries vice provost and university librarian, said. The duties of these archivists included artifact record keeping and preservation and researching ownership claims for stolen art, he said.
“According to the National Archives, approximately 20 percent of the art in Europe was looted by the Nazis, and there are more than 100,000 items that have not been returned to their rightful owners,” Van Gemert said.
More often than not, archivists were only able to determine whether or not an artifact could be salvaged, as a majority of them had been damaged or destroyed in the transition process, he said.
Two UW alumni, Jesse Boell and Gilbert Doane, were MFAA members and contributed to the effort to save and return art pieces to their owners, according to a UW statement.
During the war, Boell spent the majority of his time in Washington D.C., working in the National Archives as assistant director of the War Records Office, the statement said. There, he took charge of directing the preservation and security of classified U.S. Department of State records, the statement said.
After the war, Boell accepted the position of an archives officer with the MFAA in Germany.
Gilbert Doane served as director of the UW Library School from 1938 until 1941. In 1943, Doane was recruited for service in the MFAA and aided with the restoration of objects the Nazis looted, according to the statement said.
After the war, Doane returned to UW, where he continued working as the director of libraries until 1956, when he became archivist until he retired in 1962.
David Null, who works with UW Archives and Records Management Services, said he though it was great the first two UW archivists were both monuments men.
Null highlighted Boell’s importance, because as an archivist for 12 years Boell “really established the University Archives as a large, important collection.”
While both Boell and Doane contributed immensely to the artifact restoration effort, Van Gemert said they were not the only individuals from UW and Wisconsin who participated in the effort to identify, record and preserve the cultural history of Europe.
Van Gemert said the film will provide its viewers the opportunity to learn more about and acknowledge the efforts to preserve cultural items of great significance while recognizing Boell, Doane and others affiliated with UW.
“It’s one of those great stories of World War II that continues to this day,” Van Gemert said.
An exhibit titled “Our Monuments Men: UW’s role in rescuing Europe’s treasures,” will be running in the Memorial Library lobby during February.