The new movie “Monument Men” has shined a light on the heroic efforts of a group of men and women who labored to save hundreds of thousands of art pieces from destruction by the Nazis at the close of World War II. European works of art weren’t the only pieces the members of this special group were charged with protecting and retrieving; they also targeted records and archives.
In the article “Fred Shipman, ‘Monuments Man,’” posted on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum website, author Ali Caron wrote that in December 1942 the National Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institution petitioned President Roosevelt to support a plan for “the creation of an organization [. . .] for the protection and conservation of works of art and of artistic or historic monuments and records in Europe, and to aid in salvaging and returning to, or compensating in kind, the lawful owners of such objects which have been appropriated by the Axis powers or by individuals acting with their authority or consent.” The plan included establishing the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe.
In June 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved formation of the commission by the U.S. State Department. The commission drew experts from various libraries and museums, including the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art, and was headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts.
Fred W. Shipman, the first director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, was asked to join the Roberts Commission “to survey the problem relative to records and archives in this theater and to organize plans to preserve, salvage and make available important records for use in the continued administration and future reconstruction of the area and to preserve cultural materials.”
According to the article, Shipman’s mission was to help protect and preserve Italian archives and records, which included the current administrative records of government and private organizations, as well as the older archives of historical and cultural value.
“The United States government was interested in these records for three reasons,” Caron wrote. “First, they hoped the records would contain information of value in planning military operations. Second, they wanted to make available for the Allied Military Government and the Italian Government those records and archives that were essential to the current administration and reconstruction of Italy. Finally, they hoped to safeguard that portion of the history of their civilization and culture which was recorded in the Italian archives, including church, family, and state archives dating from the Middle Ages.”
Caron wrote that Shipman and his group focused on records from the second two groups, particularly older materials that would likely have significant historical and cultural value. Their efforts included educating the military on how to properly handle and preserve archival materials, helping local archivists develop plans for reconstruction, and making microfilm copies of hundreds of documents both for preservation and access.
For those interested in learning more about archives, visit the Society of American Archivists (SAA) website, browse SAA’s journal, Archival Outlook, or purchase one of SAA’s books from the ARMA bookstore, Archives & Recordkeeping: Theory into Practice; Archives: Principles and Practices; or Arranging & Describing Archives.