A modern-day monuments woman, once with the MIA, shares stories from the battlefield

Cori Wegener is the rare curator who can break down a rifle as well as the Prairie School’s influence on architecture. She was in the Army Reserves and an assistant curator at the MIA when she was sent to Baghdad after the National Museum of Iraq was looted in 2003 and to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. In 2012, she joined the Smithsonian Institution as a cultural heritage preservation officer, and now she’s trying to replicate herself, training the military to spare the world’s treasures in the midst of conflict. On February 21, she’ll be at the University of St. Thomas to talk about this work around the world. Here, she explains her unusual dual life and the greatest threat to art since the Nazis.

You joined the Army Reserves right out of high school. How did that lead to an interest in art?

I went to the first Gulf War as a quartermaster and found it really boring, so after the war I transferred to Civil Affairs. I knew the division had this idea of protecting cultural property and I vaguely heard people say, “Oh yeah, we’ve been doing that since World War II.” Then I read The Rape of Europa [the definitive account of Nazi looting] and realized my God, this is Civil Affairs! I want to do this!

The aftermath of looting at the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, following the American invasion in 2003.

The aftermath of looting at the National Museum of Iraq, in Baghdad, following the American invasion in 2003.

Was there still something called the monuments division?

They don’t have that slot anymore, but back in the ’90s, that was an actual slot you could go into. I was the assistant monuments men officer. My boss was a Chicago police detective, had no background in art. Let’s face it, if you’re not at war, and you have an all-volunteer force, many of my art curatorial colleagues are not going to be interested in joining the army. There are very few qualified people in Civil Affairs who have held those slots.

Eventually you came to the MIA. How did that happen?

In 1994, I was finishing up a graduate degree in political science at the University of Kansas when I decided to take a couple of art history classes. Civil Affairs are kind of ambassadors between civilians and military in any country we’re going into, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to know something about art history. Just take out a few more student loans. Eventually I got another master’s in art history. And when my husband moved to Minnesota in 1996 to take a job at Honeywell, I got an internship at the MIA. Needless to say, it ended abruptly when I got deployed to Bosnia.

But you returned to the MIA—you were here from ’99 to 2012, when you weren’t off with the army. Where were you when the Iraq War began in 2003?

When America saw Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad being looted on TV, I was sitting on my couch in Minneapolis. My unit was supposed to go to Afghanistan a few months from then, but I saw that happen and thought, Holy cow, I can’t believe this is happening and, second, I can’t believe they haven’t called me!

The 2010 earthquake that hit Haiti destroyed the presidential palace and the cathedral in Port-au-Prince among other cultural sites, leaving the country's rich heritage vulnerable to treasure hunters.

The 2010 earthquake that hit Haiti destroyed the presidential palace and the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, among other cultural sites, leaving the country’s rich heritage vulnerable to treasure hunters.

Could they have sent someone else?

There were few cultural property specialists in the ranks. You’d hear things like, “The chaplain does it in our unit.”So I emailed my former commanders: “Why don’t you send me, I know you don’t have anyone.” Well, be careful what you wish for. All of a sudden there were orders signed by 1-, 2-, 3-star generals. A friend of mine said, “I got your orders here, I don’t know who you pissed off.”Of course it was the fact that the looting was being seen on CNN. I was on the ground in Baghdad a little over a month later.

What exactly went wrong?

We pushed farther and faster into Iraq than intended, so the combat commanders just kept going, and they didn’t bring along the people to do the touchy-feely stuff like protecting cultural heritage.

What did you find there?

The press had reported that the entire contents of the museum was gone. But the staff had hidden almost all of the collection in a secret storage location. The things that got looted in galleries were predominantly installed objects, or too heavy to move without heavy machinery, and they didn’t want to tip their hand by bringing that in.

So where do you start?

Imagine if a terrible thing happened at the MIA like looting, and a team shows up and says, “We’re the point of contact for the military that just invaded your country, and we’re here to help.” We said, “Here’s a big pot of money, let’s start paying some extra security.” We brought them a great big generator so the power losses didn’t affect them as heavily. We bought them new doors because the looters had broken all of them in.

The symbol of the Blue Shield, an organization founded by Cori Wegener to combat cultural destruction.

The symbol of the Blue Shield, an organization founded by Cori Wegener to combat cultural destruction.

Two major wars later, in Iraq and Afghanistan, how much of a monuments men infrastructure is there now?

You have to understand how Civil Affairs works—they try to bring people in with civilian skills that the military doesn’t otherwise have. We have to be capable of running a U.S.-enforced occupational government, and we didn’t do such a great job of it in Iraq. Ten years of constant deployments makes your functional specialists want to do something else. So now they’ve got a new program restructuring our ability to cover these specialty areas, including cultural heritage—modern-day monuments men.

And you’re involved with this.

Yes, through the Smithsonian we’ve been helping train individual Civil Affairs units. The military is still doing this work, though some people would say, “Obviously they’re not, because look what happened with the Baghdad museum.” And maybe that’s my fault for not writing a tell-all book, but even today you can open the field manual and read about preserving cultural heritage: do this, don’t do that.

What are the greatest risks to cultural treasures today. Nobody’s going around plundering like the Nazis, are they?

These days, the leading cause is religious and ethnic conflict, intentionally destroying your enemies’ heritage. That’s what we saw in Mali recently and in other Islamic countries like Kosovo and Bosnia.

How do you stop that?

This group that I founded, the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, helps protect against deliberate destruction—the blue shield is the symbol of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. A lot of countries put that shield on their important buildings. So when the Serbs shot tank rounds into sites with those symbols on them—intentional war crimes against cultural heritage—people went to jail for it.

When you talk to the military about saving art, what kind of response do you get?

I’m so used to that initial response of “Well, you know, ma’am, if I’m in a firefight I’m worried about my soldiers.” Well, of course you are. But now let’s talk about international law and the rules of engagement. We’re not saying you need to protect cultural property at all costs.

No one needs to die for art.

No, you don’t need to stand and die because there’s a church in the way. But more often than not the issue is convenience, and I won’t tolerate that. Just like you can’t shoot civilians to get them out of the way, you have to protect cultural property as much as the battle allows. What I’m teaching these military advisors is how to keep their commanders out of jail.