The Modern Monuments Men – Preserving Priceless Heritage

Modern Monuments Men

Originally published by RiAus on 2 April 2015.

Art, in all of its shapes and forms is highly valued, both in terms of money and cultural heritage. It can even have a huge impact on the way we feel and react! Think of how much money some art sells for, or the amount of security that is placed around the Mona Lisa. Or even the fact that forgery of any of the great works of art is a pretty serious crime with massive legal and physical consequences. But, what seems more important is their cultural value. A piece of artwork can tell an entire culture’s history. It can inspire millions, or even drive them to distraction. And it’s not just paintings! Sculptures, monuments, jewellery, even film can be considered to be art. Its value may be in its intrinsic value to a community on a cultural or historical level. It can help to tell the story of an entire city’s past, present or future, their hopes and dreams, their fears. On a personal level art has the power to inspire. It can change someone’s experiences or even completely alter their emotions. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

That’s why art conservationists are so important. The recent movie ‘The Monuments Men’ reminds us of that as it follows the courageous individuals in World War II who tried to save priceless artwork from Nazi pillaging. Art conservationists also work in laboratories; helping to restore and preserve this priceless aspect of all our cultures. They use sophisticated scientific technology to examine the causes of deterioration, document, and treat the work to preserve or repair its physical condition for future generations. Have you ever wondered how objects in museums that are hundreds, if not thousands of years old stay in pristine condition? It’s probably the work of an art conservationist. But what happens if the museum or artwork is in the middle of a war zone?

Modern Monuments Men1

The Syrian civil war began in 2011, and since then, many of its cultural artefacts have been at the mercy of looters, heavy artillery gunfire and general warfare. There were 6 Heritage Listed sites that have been classified as being in danger. ( The Ma’arra Mosaic Museum was one such location that was hit especially hard. It is home to one of the world’s biggest collections of Roman and Byzantine mosaics in the world… or at least it was. Thanks to the last four years of civil war, most of the loose objects that can be carried have been taken away. Even parts of the mosaics have been removed as plunder. That doesn’t even take into account the damage that has been done by gunfire and bombs!

Cue the ‘Syrian Monuments Men’, a group of Syrian academics who are determined to save their home’s cultural heritage. This amazingly dedicated group of academics have made it their mission to protect the artwork, often risking life and limb to do so! Spearheaded by Abdul Rahman al-Yehiya and Ayman al-Nabu, the group decided that it was time to take action in 2014.

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Since then, they have held a number of workshops on art restoration and conservation, providing these surprising warriors with the skills to protect this priceless collection. They’ve also spent weeks on the front lines of a terrible war to attempt to barricade and protect the remaining mosaics, regardless of the very real risk to their health and wellbeing.

Since 2014, Abdul Rahman al-Yehiya, Ayman al-Nabu and their “monuments men” have managed to sandbag and protect over 1600 square feet (roughly 150 metres squared) of mosaics from the damage of warfare. There is still an incredibly high risk of looters and pillagers to this art, but some amazing progress has still been made. There is also the very real danger of snipers and soldiers to the volunteers who have made this their mission, but according to Yehiya, it’s all worth the risk.

Art conservation isn’t necessarily about braving the front lines of a war to rescue your country’s cultural identity and heritage. That takes some very serious dedication. But, it is a fascinating STEM career and pathway that can help to make an impact on many people’s lives, for generations to come.

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