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Safeguarding Collections During Times of War: An Undergraduate Thesis Topic, Explored

Posted By Sarah Overman, Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The validity of museum studies programs in undergraduate study is questioned by professionals, professors, university gallery staff, and most often my parents and relatives.What role does museum studies have to play in an undergraduate’s education; specifically in my case, what role does museum studies have to play in a liberal arts school? These questions were the last thing on my mind when choosing a senior thesis topic, meant to be applicable beyond academia and reflective of my liberal arts background. Determining the role of undergraduate museum studies programs and tackling the challenge of choosing a thesis topic began to snowball into an unlikely singular endeavor. After reading The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas, I began to delve into deeper research for a thesis topic inspired by a chapter of this book. The story I uncovered raised questions that would not only become present in the dialogue of my thesis, but reflective of my purpose as an undergraduate museum studies minor. 

Over the span of a year, I would have to give my thesis “elevator speech” to many different people ranging from the interested and understanding to the bored and politely questioning. Though the soon rehearsed description evolved through my research and changed via the audience, its main gist was about the same. My thesis considered the ethics of safeguarding in times of conflict where antiquities are threatened, focusing on the actions of America post World War II in transfer of 202 works of art, owned by the German state before the Nazis, to America for safeguarding until Germany could “re-earn its right to be a nation.” The last part I would put in air-quotes for the less interested listener to add intrigue to a seemingly dry and over-focused topic. Rather than over-focused, I would attempt to convince others that the span of the ethical debate within my research reached across disciplines. 

Although the idea of “the spoils of war” often brings to mind an ancient civilization’s plundering and looting, the concept is still prevalent in modern politics. With the recent destruction of cultural heritage sites by terrorist group ISIS, the response for safeguarding these works is overwhelming. While this is understandable, I used the scenario of post-war Germany to illustrate how the gut reaction of safeguarding these works can quickly become politicized and corrupted. In a world where antiquities have undeniable fiscal value, it is difficult for governments to save these works without underlying motivations. The protests of the popularly known “Monuments Men” during this debate show the importance for balance between national and global heritage as well as for informed and objective decision making before moving a country’s cultural property.

Though many point the blame to various figures and branches within the government as to why these 202 works eventually came to the National Gallery and toured the United States, such nuances are not the subject of importance to those within museums. Instead we should consider why these works moved to America when the transport was more dangerous than keeping them in Germany. Why were the Monuments Men ignored as they gave concise arguments towards the stability of their art repositories and the competence of their staff in ensuring these masterpieces’ safety? In sifting through various correspondences, I determined that the reason this art was moved was the underlying justification of “the spoils of war.” America had fought a long war against the Germans and they believed that they deserved to see this artwork. They argued that these antiquities belonged to the world; therefore, it was America’s duty to protect them from a war-torn Germany. This argument of global rather than national heritage is one propagated by many within museums and in the outside world. As the main goal of museums is to preserve, educate, and protect, it is assumed that the best museums in the world must take such antiquities. With such a mission and subsequent conclusion, it may seem obvious which side we land on. 


As with any divisive issue, neither extreme produces promising results when examined closely. In a situation of inaction such as the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, it is simple to jump toward conclusions of global heritage and the need to safeguard these works by moving them to other countries. In the case of American action after World War II, it is shown that such immediate reactions produce negative results that are more influenced by the want of the spoils of war than safeguarding. In such a difficult situation, there seems to be no solution. When presenting at the poster presentation session at this year’s VAM Conference, I was asked by a woman who had done her graduate work on a similar topic to propose an answer to this problem. I felt as if I had just been asked an unanswerable question. I told her the best solution I have yet to propose, one that seems to be the cop-out of philosophizing undergraduates trying to find meaning in their thesis topic: “communication and education.” Those making decisions considering safeguarding should not be members of government unaware of the situation on the ground but museum professionals who could make educated decisions and communicate them effectively to initiate change. While I still hold true to this answer, I still do not have the complete solution. 

Through my research, I believe I answered a completely different question somewhat irrelevant to the thesis topic: What is the purpose of museum studies in an undergraduate liberal arts school? Through my museum studies program, I had been encouraged by my professor to think about big-picture ethical discussions in the museum world and what the purpose of a museum was. These lessons are not merely applicable to the aspiring museum professional, but to any member of society. These undergraduate classes do not just educate future professionals, but donors, volunteers, and museum attendants. Although not all museum studies students will pursue a career in the field, such programs will leave impressions on them as members of society. By providing museum studies programs in liberal arts undergraduate education, these schools emphasize the importance of the museum’s place in the community. Great universities have great museums, and great liberal arts programs have great museum studies courses. 

Sarah Overman graduated from Lynchburg College with a major in European History and minors in Museum Studies and Political Science. I currently work at Amazement Square Rightmire Children's Museum.

Tags:  Amazement Square  Collections Care  Lynchburg  Lynchburg College  museums  Student research  The Monuments Men  The Rape of Europa  VAM 

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