Dumbarton Oaks / Dumbarton Oaks Fellows / Research

Saving the World, Part I: Dumbarton Oaks to Monuments Men

Written by Ameena Mohammad, Pre-Columbian Archives Assistant

Dumbarton Oaks was founded in 1940 as a hub for advanced research. In October 1941,  staff members and fellows of  Dumbarton Oaks established an immense research project to gather information about cultural heritage sites around the world.  What began as an effort to document these monuments is now part of ICFA’s holdings, known as the Research Archives.  The minutes from the first meeting to discuss the project describe it as an “experiment in planned cooperative research… it may offer a solution for a problem of scholarship at a time when [the] world situation has made its position increasingly precarious.” The challenge was that the Byzantine period “resembles a little-known continent, the maps of which – like those of the American West in early days – are marked with vagueness or inaccuracy as regards the fundamental topography, with only a few local features here and there known in detail.” In essence, the aim of the Research Archives project was to replace this ambiguity with systematic documentation, to fill “in more areas in the map” through collaborative research.

Under the supervision of Wilhelm Koehler, Senior Fellow in charge of Research, a team of historians and archaeologists – including Junior Fellows Herbert Bloch, Donald F. Brown, Mary E. Crane, Florence E. Day, Andrew S. Keck, and Ernst Kitzinger – developed a methodical organization of work. The “unknown continent” that was the Byzantine Empire was divided into six areas, which included: Western Europe (including Italy); North Africa (excluding Egypt at the time); the Balkans (including Greek and Italian islands); Anatolia and Armenia; Syria and Palestine; and Mesopotamia. The research coverage also included five “tentative boundaries between regions,” i.e., Africa; Anatolia (present-day Turkey); Balkans, including islands; between West and Balkans; and Syria-Mesopotamia. Each Junior Fellow was assigned a specific area and they were expected to become “thoroughly familiar with the peculiar artistic dialect of the region and its development” by compiling bibliographic information and photographic reproductions for each site within the region. For example, Bloch concentrated on Italy while Keck tackled Syria and Palestine. During weekly meetings presided over by Koehler, each Junior Fellow reported on the progress of their work and exchanged their views and discoveries with the group.

The overall goal of the Research Archive was to gather in one place all available documentation from extant publications and make this resource available to scholars. Within its first year, the Dumbarton Oaks group organized and filed 4,142 photographs along with corresponding monographs and studies of monuments, according to the Dumbarton Oaks Annual Report  for 1940-41. Over the years, more fellows joined the initiative, including names very familiar to Dumbarton Oaks: Margaret  Ames Alexander, Josephine Harris, and Paul Atkins Underwood. The products of these scholars’ collective work now forms a substantial archival collection, consisting of 58 boxes of photographs and research notes.

However, research needs soon shifted from academic to resourceful, as concern for not only safety, but also humanity, was heightened. The world was at war and the United States was soon to join in. Dumbarton Oaks also joined the war effort. According to the 1942-43 Dumbarton Oaks Annual Report, objects in the museum collection were “packed away for the duration of the war” and due to wartime service, the number of Junior Fellows working on the Research Archives project was reduced to four. Those remaining were asked “to contribute to the war effort important information concerning works of art in the following countries: Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Tunisia.”

Involved in documenting these historical assets, the Dumbarton Oaks team made up a small portion of Harvard’s American Defense Group, which helped rally unity in the U.S. and aided other countries struggling against the Axis Powers. According to the records at the Harvard University Archives, Harvard’s American Defense Group eventually reached 1,700 members and 240 active volunteers.  Its volunteers participated in  several different outreach activities and collaborated with government agencies, such as the War Department. A special committee prepared extensive lists and manuals on art and monuments for the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas.

There was a sense of urgency in the air and a great need to understand other cultures – and not just to preserve cultural heritage. According to 1943 correspondence from Harvard University’s Dr. Hugh O’Neill Hencken to Milton Vasil Anastos, then a Dumbarton Oaks Junior Fellow, the War Department wanted people to collect cultural information about other countries and regions, not only the art and monuments studied by Dumbarton Oaks scholars. Information  being compiled for the War Department was gathered, in part, for the use of soldiers stationed overseas (see below).

Research Archive

A letter from Harvard University’s Hugh O’Neill Hencken. The correspondence expands upon what types of information to collect as designated by the War Department and how such content could help overseas; the handwritten portion is asking Anastos for information on Romania.

While some wanted to aid the war effort further by joining the Army, such as Anastos, others at Dumbarton Oaks continued to gather information for the Committee on the Protection of Monuments. For instance, Margaret Alexander (then Ames), was assigned Hungary and Tunisia. Her report on Hungary exemplifies the War Department’s needs described in the letter to Anastos above. Alexander’s report includes a basic introduction to Hungary, information regarding its council on monuments, festivals, pilgrimages, holidays, in addition to a detailed list of monuments reminiscent of the Research Archives’ initial workflow.

Research Archive

Cover Page. Hungary, Short List of Reports, American Defense – Harvard Group, Committee on the Protection of Monuments by Margaret Ames, c. 1943.

Research Archive

Hungary, Short List of Reports, American Defense – Harvard Group, Committee on the Protection of Monuments, c. 1943. p. 8

The efforts of Dumbarton Oaks scholars to research, document, and procure as much information on cultural heritage sites as part of the war effort is similar to some tasks undertaken by the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (MFFA) under the Civil Affairs and Government Sections of Allied forces. Both groups were guided by the same principles. Members in the MFFA program were called “Monuments Men.” One might be more familiar with the designation “Monuments Men,” since they have been referenced in various forms of media, including the 2006 documentary The Rape of Europa and in author Robert M. Edsel and contributor Bret Witter’s “Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” This 2010 publication was adapted into the film that was recently released, The Monuments Men (2014) by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, which Clooney also directed.  For more information regarding this slice of America’s history, visit the exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, “Monuments Men: On the Frontline to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946,” which will be on view through April 20th.

Harvard’s American Defense Group was officially disbanded in 1945 and the MFFA ceased operations in 1946. After the war, Dumbarton Oaks continued to support projects to document and preserve the cultural heritage of Byzantium, whether compiling a Census of Objects of Early Christian and Byzantine Art in North American Collections or sponsoring the conservation and restoration of wall paintings in churches in Cyprus. Collaborating on an international level to preserve our world’s cultural heritage is just as important now as it was then. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was founded in November 1945, as means to build peace after two world wars. A key component to UNESCO’s mission is creating “intercultural understanding,” which the organization strives to create through the World Heritage program. A global effort, UNESCO’s World Heritage List currently includes 981 properties that are considered cultural and/or natural heritage sites of “outstanding universal value,” with 1,570 other properties around the world pending. No doubt, many of these sites are recorded in the files of the Research Archives.


2 thoughts on “Saving the World, Part I: Dumbarton Oaks to Monuments Men

  1. Pingback: Leaving Hagia Sophia: Istanbul before World War II | icfa

  2. Pingback: Undulating and Intertwined: A Catalog of Oxyrhynchos Sculpture by Josephine Harris | icfa

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