Celebrating the BMA’s Monuments Men

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Charles Parkhurst in the BMA Education Department, October 1965. People Photograph Collection, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art. PCP.5.36.1

Tracy Lewis, BMA Archives Intern

When I first sat down with the BMA Archives’ People Photograph Collection, I felt like a stranger lost in a crowd. As a Library and Archives intern on a project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), I have been rearranging and processing photographs, negatives, and slides of people who have are in some way connected to the Museum, whether they be staff, members of the Board of Trustees, speakers, or visitors to the galleries. Over the past seven months, I have gotten to know these people in the crowd. I even know some of their birthdays, such as former Museum Director Charles Parkhurst, who was born on January 23, 1913. He and former Associate Director Denys P. Myers were both Monuments Men.

Men and women who have served in the US Armed Forces have not only served their country, but also the world’s art. In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA) of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Divisions of the Allied Armies. Their story made popular by the 2014 film starring Matt Damon and George Clooney, the Monuments Men were 345 volunteer museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, educators, and other experts from 14 nations. The MFAA selected them to retrieve, protect, and return cultural artifacts that had been looted by Nazi forces during World War II.

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Denys Peter Myers, June 1961. People Photographs Collection, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art. PCP.2.68.1

An architectural historian and Episcopalian deacon who worked at the Museum from 1959 until 1965, Denys P. Myers helped Lt. John Skilton to salvage the Trepolo ceiling in the Residenz Palace in Würzberg, Germany. Allied bombing in 1945 had destroyed part of the ceiling of the palace and left Trepolo’s painting Olympus and the Four Continents exposed to the elements. Skilton and his crew scoured the region for lumber and rebuilt the ceiling. Restoration of the palace wasn’t completed until 1990.

Parkhurst, Director of the BMA from 1962 until 1970, served as a Navy gunnery officer in the Mediterranean prior to his appointment as deputy chief of the MFAA section of the US Military Government in Germany around the end of the war. France named Parkhurst a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor in 1948 for his contribution to the reclamation of the art stolen by the National Socialists. On November 7, 1945, Parkhurst and 24 other military officers signed the Wiesbaden Manifesto in protest to a US government directive that ordered the Monuments Men to ship 202 German-owned paintings held at the Wiesbaden Collecting Point to the National Gallery of Art. In a 1982 interview, Parkhurst said he and his fellow officers likened the federal government’s demand to the very looting that instigated their mission.

Parkhurst wholeheartedly believed in the responsibility of a museum to educate its visitors. In his first annual report to the Board of Trustees, excerpts of which were published in The Baltimore Museum of Art News in 1964, the Director listed several objectives for the museum. One of those objectives, he said should be “to broaden and to enrich the visitor’s knowledge of the world, particularly of his own cultural heritage; but also to shed light upon cultures other than his own which otherwise he might not recognize, let alone understand.”  Without his and Myers’ efforts to rescue European art from the plundering of the Nazis, these cultural treasures might not exist for museum visitors worldwide to learn about today. The experiences that Parkhurst, Myers, and the many other individuals who are pictured in the People Photograph Collection have brought to the Museum are treasures in themselves that add a dynamic dimension to the art displayed in the BMA’s galleries. Preservation of the photographs and other records in the BMA Archives make their stories available so that others may learn about and understand their legacy to the Museum.

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