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Mounuments Men: “Art is long, life is short”

I’m sitting here in a comfy chair warming up by the fireplace, with laptop in hand and a nice cup of coffee nearby. It’s a snow day pretty much everywhere in the state of Kansas and I’m catching up on my to-do list.

One of the things to check off? The Monuments Men.

It’s an incredible true story. It’s a book. And this weekend, it’s a movie coming out starring, well . . . a bunch of my favorite actors. Bill Murray. George Clooney. John Goodman. Matt Damon. Cate Blanchett.

Early reviews over at Rotten Tomatoes seem mixed. But I’ll be going no matter what. I’m a sucker for movies based on historical events. Argo. Lincoln. Band of Brothers. Hotel Rwanda. Glory. Gettysburg. All the President’s Men. The Mission.

I’m hoping for the best but I’m sure that through the whole thing I’ll be making mental notes about the lack of historical accuracy and the jumbling of facts for dramatic effect. Because we all know that the book is always better. Always.

But I’ll also get over it. The book is always better but it’s also always interesting to see how the story “looks,” how the movie tells its version of events. Because the story is a great tale. If you haven’t gotten the drift from all the movie ads, here are the basics:

The “Monuments Men” were a group of approximately 345 men and women from thirteen nations who comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section during World War II. Many were museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators. Together they worked to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II. In the last year of the war, they tracked, located, and in the years that followed returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. Their role in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent.

The work was difficult, dangerous, and vastly under-appreciated at the time. Their story was eventually uncovered and documented by several different groups but it was Robert Edsel’s 2010 book, The Monuments Men, that made the biggest splash. And with names like Clooney and Damon attached to it, more are learning about this very cool story.

As history and social studies people, this seems like a great opportunity to talk about a ton of appropriate topics with our kids. If you’re teaching 20th Century US or world history, geography, economics, or government, the actual events and content of the Monuments Men story blend right in.

Edsel talks about a phrase he once saw over the archway above in the entrance to a museum in Budapest:

Art is long, life is short

So there can and should be conversations about art and humanities and preserving history and protecting artifacts and similarities to recent events in the Mideast and importance of history to who we are and solving mysteries and looking for clues and . . . you get the idea. There are lots of tangents to take on this topic that I think fit in to building both historical content and historical thinking.

And the cool thing is that there are lots of teaching and learning resources out there with the movie coming out this weekend. Here’s a short list:

Some background

The Movie

Teaching Resources

Have fun!

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