A few decades back, when the British Museum System started to give in to international outcry to begin returning historical artifacts initially “discovered” and transported under less-than-legitimate legality to their countries of origin, one of the principal arguments against said returns was that various nations in – for example – Asia, Africa and the Middle-East were too unstable to “trust” with the safekeeping of priceless treasures of human history.
This argument was largely dismissed as self-justifying hyperbole couched in racism and cultural-bigotry; and honestly that was probably the correct response. “I’m better than the person I stole from, so I DESERVE the stolen goods more” is a pretty bad defense in any circumstance, and folks who’d make it pretty-much self-identify as total bastards by doing so.
So… how much does it SUCK that, now that the unfolding clusterfuck in Egypt has predictably led to the desecration of priceless antiquities… those aforementioned bigoted bastards would probably have more than a little cause to say “told ya so?”
Yeah, I’m “that guy” who doesn’t really get “torn up” over stuff like this until Museums and cultural-treasures start getting destroyed. Y’know that “heroic” scene in “Volcano” where the guy is chastising the rescue team for trying to save “a buncha paintings and stuff” instead of “the people?” Out of the whole ridiculous movie, that’s the part that makes me roll my eyes the most. In the comments section, someone will make the (very sincere) argument that worth of historical art-treasures is nothing compared to “the fight against oppression” or “a poverty-stricken people”… yeah, I know that’s how I’m “supposed” to see the world – but I don’t. Not really.
Obviously, in the abstract, I’m for “the little guy” and against dictatorships and autocrats… but in all honesty, like the thoroughly-detached, media-placated Ugly American that I am I’m unable to summon much more than a that’s-too-bad about the plight of the protesting Egyptian citizenry – whoever the good guys are, I hope they win and I don’t want to see any (more) people die needlessly, that’s about what I can muster. On the other hand… the idea of Mubarak falling, a Muslim Brotherhood-backed theocracy filling the vacuum a’la the Taliban and the Pyramids, Sphinx etc winding up like The Bamiyan Buddhas? THAT makes me literally shake with indignation. “Things” can win out over “people” with me, on a case by case basis. That’s who I am, and I accept it.
Anyway… it got me thinking about one of my favorite “why don’t more people know about this?” pieces of 20th Century history; and how much we could use a version of it today. How many of you have heard of “The Monument Men?”
Basically, during WWII the Allies were assissted by a U.S. Government-initiated group of art and history experts culled from the upper-echelons of the University and Museum community (y’know, those terrible “elites” you hear so much about) in the preservation of Europe’s art treasures during and after the war effort. They’re best known for helping to identify, secure and reclaim the stolen artwork caches of the Nazis, but they had active-combat functions as well. My favorite: When the Allies bombed Nazi-occupied Florence, they built tactics partially around detailed maps and coordinates provided by Monument Men to avoid damaging the city’s priceless landmarks. This was very much an of-it’s-time phenomenon – it existed because concerned art historians made the case for such an undertaking to the government, and men like FDR and Eisenhower agreed – it’s the first time in modern (or pretty much ANY) record that an Army had been instructed to include the preservation of art and cultural treasues as part of their standing orders.
Two thoughts always occur to me about this, in order. First: Why the HELL was this never the plot of an “Indiana Jones” sequel?? Second: Can you IMAGINE the outcry if anyone proposed such a thing today? The wailing and gnashing of teeth from both the reflexively art-hating, “no spending!!!” Right and the “you’re spending it on paintings… what about the PEOPLE!!!???” Left?