Twenty men and women in military fatigues huddled around a 19th-century painting of a fiery sunset at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a recent Saturday afternoon. They leaned toward the vivid picture of the Ukrainian wilderness as their tour guide spoke.
“The weaponization of art history,” Alison Hokanson, associate curator of European paintings, told them, “is the weaponization of objects but also the weaponization of the stories that are told through these objects.”
The visit of a reserve unit, the 353rd Civil Affairs Command, based on Staten Island, was part of the Army’s revived program to deploy officers with arts training in a military capacity to save works in conflict zones — a new generation of the Monuments Men who recovered millions of European treasures looted by the Nazis during World War II. The program was announced three years ago but interrupted by Covid and bureaucratic hurdles.
Now Capt. Blake Ruehrwein, an Air Force veteran who also runs education and outreach at the Naval War College Museum in Newport, R.I., was instructing a new unit learning the ropes from some of the world’s top art experts. “Take what you learn from here and apply it,” he told the officers attending the museum workshop in early June. “Protecting culture is everyone’s job.”
The troops listened as Hokanson explained that the landscape painting they were gazing at was by Arkhyp Kuindzhi, newly reclassified as a Ukrainian-born artist rather than Russian (wall labels also give the Russian transliteration, Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi). As Russia attempted to obliterate Ukrainian identity by targeting the country’s cultural heritage, the Met, since the war began, has been researching artworks and artists mislabeled as Russian and reclassifying them as Ukrainian.
The Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative and the Met Museum have teamed up with the Army to help soldiers understand the role that art plays in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. (Last year, The New York Times identified 339 buildings, monuments and other cultural sites that had been heavily damaged or destroyed in the fighting. A notorious example was the destruction by a deadly Russian airstrike of Mariupol’s Drama Theater, a landmark where hundreds of people were sheltering. And recently, the destruction of a dam in southern Ukraine appears to have flooded the house museum of the self-taught artist, Polina Rayko, according to the foundation managing the artist’s legacy.)
“Part of the conversation here is how to document evidence of crimes,” said Corine Wegener, director of the Smithsonian initiative, who faced many of the same challenges 20 years ago as an arts, monuments and archives officer in Baghdad. “We have worked hard to develop a methodology for documentation. You aren’t just looking for broken objects but evidence of how they were broken.”
In 2022, Capt. Ruehrwein participated in a simulation at the National Museum of the United States Army, in Fort Belvoir, Va., where officers learned the basics of forensic documentation, emergency preparedness and war-zone conservation techniques. There was also a trip to Honduras, where new Monuments officers toured the Mayan ruins of Copán with a local infantry brigade. The partnership focused on how the two countries might strengthen efforts to track and evaluate world heritage sites like these ruins, which can be endangered by natural disasters, vandalism and looting.
“Before you touch or move anything, photograph it,” instructed Lisa Pilosi, head of objects conservation at the Met. “That could be used as evidence in criminal court.”
Pilosi said that Met officials had been working with the military on the protection of cultural heritage since 2013, including efforts to help colleagues in Iraq rebuild their institutions after theft and destruction, but her focus on disaster response has grown through the years as important monuments and artworks have routinely become targets in conflicts.
“My boss likes to joke that this has become my side hustle,” Pilosi said. She has been meeting with the U.S. State Department and Ukrainian officials, including the country’s first lady, Olena Zelenska.
But the public response to the reclassification of Ukrainian art has been mixed. Another curator read the troops excerpts from letters criticizing the decision to change wall texts and artists’ nationalities, including emails calling the museum “fascists” and threatening violence.
“Some letters we had to escalate to security,” said the curator, who asked not to be identified because of safety concerns. “Remember this is a label on a painting, and this is the firestorm that it sparked.”
The Met has added security staff to the European paintings area on the second floor and put some works behind protective glass. But the museum has not stopped its research into reclassifying Ukrainian artists, according to Max Hollein, the Met director. He said in a statement that staff members are studying objects in the collection “with experts in the field,” to determine the best ways of accurately presenting them.
“Scholarly thinking is evolving quickly, because of the increased awareness of and attention to Ukrainian culture and history since the Russian invasion,” Hollein said. “We remain committed to this pursuit of knowledge — and to sharing our research and findings with visitors and scholars alike.”