Unveiling the little-known Monuments Women who helped recover art from the Nazis

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Test your knowledge on the unsung heroes 🎨 of World War II with our quiz "Unveiling the little-known Monuments Women who helped recover art from the Nazis"! πŸ•΅οΈπŸ–ΌοΈ See if you can uncover the stories of these courageous women and their contributions to preserving art and culture 🌍✨ #MonumentsWomen #WWII #ArtRecovery

What was Mary Regan Quessenberry's role after World War II?

She identified art stolen by the Nazis and sought its return.
She coordinated the restoration of historic monuments in Berlin.
She worked as a professor of art history at Radcliffe.


Years after the 2014 Hollywood movie made the Monuments Men famous, the Monuments Women are finally being recognized with an exhibition in New Orleans.

The award-winning 2014 Hollywood movie The Monuments Men, exposed audiences around the world to what was arguably the greatest treasure hunt in history. The movie, starring A-listers George ClooneyMatt Damon and Bill Murray, tells the true story of a World War Two platoon that came to be known as the Monuments Men, a group tasked by President Franklin D Roosevelt with rescuing art stolen by the Nazis during the course of the war.

While the film shines a light on the harrowing work involved in protecting and recovering art from the Nazis, there's one part of the story not told by the movie: the Monument Women. Alongside the men who were engaged in the important effort of preserving priceless cultural treasures for future generations, there were also women who played a key role in that effort. And now, nearly 80 years later, those overlooked women are getting their close-up thanks to a New Orleans exhibition.

The National World War II Museum in the United States, located in New Orleans, Louisiana, recently staged the first exhibition in the world to ever include the stories of some of the Monuments Women. The exhibition is merely one part of a broader effort that has taken place to fully recognise the overlooked women. The Dallas-based Monuments Men Foundation, established 15 years ago, has also officially changed its name to the Monuments Men and Women Foundation, as part of the movement to acknowledge all of the individuals responsible for saving priceless works of art both during and after World War Two.

If we're going to tell the story of the Monuments Men, that means the Monuments Men and Women. And let's make sure the women get full billing and credit – Robert M Edsel

"It was only when I started traveling around with the foundation and finding and meeting the Monuments Women that I had a chance to find out more about their story," says Robert M Edsel, who established The Monuments Men Foundation and has written four books about these individuals, including the number-one bestseller that served as the basis for George Clooney's movie. "My view now is that if we're going to tell the story of the Monuments Men, that means the Monuments Men and Women. And let's make sure the women get full billing and credit."

The exhibition at the National WWII Museum, which is housed in the Liberation Pavillion and is now part of the museum's permanent collection, is designed to do just that. Spread over three rooms, the exhibit includes state-of-the-art digital interactive experiences and even an immersive recreation of a salt mine where Nazis had hidden some of the stolen art that was later recovered by monuments officers. And throughout the installation, there are panels, many written by Edsel himself, dedicated to helping future generations learn about the critical role that more than two dozen women played in returning priceless works of art.

Monuments Men and Women Foundation website (Pictured left to right:) Monuments Women Anne Popham Bell, Mary Regan Quessenberry and Rose Valland (Credit: Monuments Men and Women Foundation website)Monuments Men and Women Foundation website
(Pictured left to right:) Monuments Women Anne Popham Bell, Mary Regan Quessenberry and Rose Valland (Credit: Monuments Men and Women Foundation website)

Who were the Monuments Women?

While World War Two was in full swing, with battles raging across Europe, Monuments Men working behind enemy lines were charged with protecting art from the Nazis. The group was made up of a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians and others. But it wasn't until the war ended in 1945 – and the effort turned to returning art – that women became involved.

"At the end of war, the word goes out in an article written in Stars and Stripes that this Monument effort needs more bodies," explains Edsel, and it was at that point that women began signing up to join the cause.


The Allied armies' Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) team, as it was officially called, ultimately included 27 women, the majority of whom were from the United States, but about six to seven were British and a handful of the women were French. Edsel has met and interviewed several of these women whom he describes as brave war heroes and is in the process of writing a book about them.

Anne Popham Bell

Among the British team members was Anne Popham Bell, the niece of author Virginia Woolf. Popham Bell's father was keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum and an authority in Italian drawings. Anne Popham Bell grew up immersed in art and went on to study art history herself at the Courtauld Institute in London. That knowledge made her an invaluable asset to the MFAA team.

"Her initial job in the British military was driving a motorcycle at night, under blackout conditions in order to deliver photos to a runway," explains Edsel. "Those were harrowing experiences, on a motorcycle, while London is being bombed, driving along a bomb-cratered road."

In 1945, Popham Bell was dispatched to the MFAA Branch of the Control Commission for Germany, and ultimately found herself stationed in Bünde at Divisional Headquarters where she became the highest ranking female officer at the location, charged with coordinating the Monuments Men in the field. But that wasn't all.

Later, Popham Bell helped the MFAA team return some 5,000 church bells that had been looted from churches across Europe. They had been taken by the Nazis to be smelted to create war materials, Edsel explains.


"There was a shipyard in Hamburg filled with all of these church bells as far as the eye could see. There were church bells piled on top of church bells and she had to go through all of them looking at foundry marks to try and figure out what country they came from and what church," continues Edsel. "She was in charge of coordinating that."

Mary Regan Quessenberry

Mary Regan Quessenberry, who was born in Boston, Massachusetts, was another member of the Monuments Women. Quessenberry graduated from Radcliffe in 1937 with a degree in arts history and then spent a year traveling the world as a Radcliffe Scholar. During that time, Quessenberry visited China and Japan, where she studied Asian art with Harvard professor and future Monuments Man Langdon Warner. Later, she returned to the United States and to Radcliffe in order to pursue a Master of Arts, where her professors would include another future Monuments Man, Mason Hammond. 

In 1942, Quessenberry enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp, which was the first female unit to serve in the US Army in a capacity that did not involve nursing work. "She was a real war hero," says Edsel, who visited Quessenberry to interview her a few years before she passed away at the age of 94. "She was among the first graduating class of the Women's Auxiliary Corp. There were 40,000 women who applied and about 400-plus were accepted. She was in the very first graduating class and was in England [during the war] as early as 1943."

Quessenberry initially underwent training that allowed her to assess bomb damage from aerial photographs following air raids. She used this skill to identify important monuments and culturally-significant sites that should be avoided during future bombing runs. But after the Allied victory, as the war was winding down, she too responded to the article in Stars and Stripes seeking Monuments team members.

The National WWII Museum (Credit: The National WWII Museum)The National WWII Museum
(Credit: The National WWII Museum)

"Her parents had taught her to stick your head up in the air and take risks because something great might happen, so she volunteered for the Monuments work, and it required her to go to Berlin," says Edsel. "And when she gets there and knocks on the door, the door opens and it's Mason Hammond, her history teacher from Harvard and he throws his arms around her and says 'Mary, thank God you're here'."

Quessenberry's assignment in Berlin involved identifying German dealers who might still be trying to traffic art stolen by the Nazis, says Edsel. She was also tasked with finding any art that Allied soldiers may have taken. Quessenberry continued doing that work until 1948.

"She loved it," says Edsel. "She was unabashed and determined." During her time on the team, Quessenberry successfully identified some works of art that dealers were trying to move around. "She took the MPs [military police] and put a stop to that," adds Edsel.

"She was immensely proud," continues Edsel. "She wanted to break the glass ceiling. She was very proud about being a woman in uniform and representing her country and very proud about what she was doing as a Monuments officer. She was glad to be able to put her art history education to work."

Rose Valland

Rose Valland had perhaps the most Hollywood-movie-esque role of all the Monuments Women. She was working at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris as its curator, supervising operations and collections when, in October 1940, the Nazis commandeered the building and turned it into the headquarters and clearing house for all the art they were looting. The building was used to store paintings and countless other works of art, much of which had been stolen from private French collections, often owned by Jews.


"The Nazis wanted to have one person working in the building who was not from their group, someone who could keep the lights on and the power running and that person was Rose Valland," explains Edsel. "But unbeknownst to them, she spoke German."

For four years, Valland worked there and eavesdropped on Nazi conversations, surreptitiously maintaining detailed notes of all the art that was passing through the building, including the destinations of train car shipments filled with looted art. 

The National WWII Museum (Credit: The National WWII Museum)The National WWII Museum
(Credit: The National WWII Museum)

"She was using her near-photographic memory watching these works of art coming through the door and keeping track of where they are going," continues Edsel. "And she was pulling photo negatives and stuffing them into her brassiere or wherever she could. So, she develops this warehouse of information of what's been stolen and where it's been shipped."

With all of the information Valland collected, she played a tremendously important role after liberation in helping to recover stolen art.


"In April 1945, weeks before the war's over, she becomes captain in the French army and goes into Germany with that army, right behind the Americans and starts what will become a lifelong  – almost 40-year – odyssey, looking for works of art stolen from her country," Edsel continues.

Valland was determined to spend every day for the remainder of her life looking for this art, says Edsel. And she did.

Edsel's foundation, The Monuments Men and Women, is now preparing to republish Valland's memoir about this experience, titled The Art Front. The book was initially published in French back in 1961 and recounts Valland's experiences secretly maintaining notes about where the art stolen by the Nazis was being shipped.

Getting their due

By the time the Monuments team disbanded in 1951 they had recovered more than five million works of art, including priceless pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Botticelli and Manet.

There are several panels within the exhibit at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans dedicated to the women who took part in this effort, including Rose Valland, Mary Quessenberry and others. There are also interactive floating paintings that tell visitors the story behind the painting, where it was stolen from – and the monuments man or woman who was responsible for recovering it. The exhibition also allows visitors to research the entire roster of women who were involved in the effort to recover lost art.


"The exhibit is titled Monuments Men and Women and that was a conscious decision we made," says retired Col Peter D Crean, vice president of education and access at the National WWII Museum. "While the common lexicon refers to the Monuments Men, there were men and women who were attached to this effort and the women played a major role."

Crean stresses that including the women in the exhibition's title and throughout the exhibit itself is not about telling a "fuller" story of the monument effort. It's about telling the story. "It's the Monuments Men and Women," he says.

NARA/Public Domain American GIs hand-carried paintings down the steps of the castle under the supervision of captain James Rorimer (Credit: NARA/Public Domain)NARA/Public Domain
American GIs hand-carried paintings down the steps of the castle under the supervision of captain James Rorimer (Credit: NARA/Public Domain)

The new exhibition, along with the republishing of Valland's book and the renaming of the Dallas-based Monuments Men foundation, are merely three ways the work of the Monuments Women will live on.

The US Army also recently celebrated the graduation of its first class of new monuments officers, which are now being called heritage and preservation officers. The graduates included several women, among them Captain Jessia Wagner, who says carrying on the work of the Monuments Women is incredibly necessary and something she is proud to do.


"I studied the MFAA women and men during graduate school research and remember thinking… they stepped into these insane roles during World War Two and they absolutely rose to the occasion," says Wagner. "It was not a 'me' motivation; it was a 'we' motivation, being a part of something bigger than yourself, a greater mission... The group was laser-focused on how to affect greater change together...It's definitely an honor to carry the Monuments Women’s work forward."

The Monuments Men and Women Gallery is now open at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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