Scheduled for release today, Monuments Men tells the story of the Anglo-American team of artists, art historians, museum curators and directors who worked to locate and preserve European monuments, works of art, libraries and archives during World War Two.

The film features a cast of established actors, including Matt Damon, George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Hugh Bonneville. Produced and directed by George Clooney, it is based on The Monuments Men, a 2009 book by Robert M. Edsel.

The art protection project was supported by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. In a letter sent to all commanders on the 29 December 1943, Eisenhower wrote that “Today we are fighting in … a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilisation which is ours. We are bound to respect these monuments so far as war allows.”

Behind the impetus to defend Europe’s cultural heritage lay concerned advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, perhaps chief among them Colonel Sir Leonard Woolley, renowned archaeologist of the Middle East. Woolley’s wife was a Somervillian and to this day a family bequest endows the Katharine and Leonard Woolley Fellowship in Archaeology.

Another Somerville link was discovered by College Principal Dr Alice Prochaska, in her former role as Head Librarian at Yale University (2001-10).

“Edith Standen, who worked as an art historian in the US, was a key figure in the group in postwar Germany, collating information on missing works of art,” said Dr Prochaska. “When I looked her up I discovered she had studied at Somerville in the 1920s.”

In her own research into the group, Dr Prochaska noted the dedication many of the group showed to saving Europe’s artistic heritage, compromising their own safety to maximise their effectiveness. In a 2011 paper on the subject entitled Ethics forged in the heat of war, Dr Prochaska wrote:

“The small band of “Monuments Men” charged with carrying out this policy, often at great personal risk, developed a camaraderie that crossed national cultural boundaries and also produced some fiercely held ethical values.”

The film is due to be released today at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.

Further reading?

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