Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service

Modern-day 'Monuments Woman,' alumna to give lecture

Fri, 08/22/2014

LAWRENCE – University of Kansas alumna Corine Wegener has been called a modern-day "monuments woman" for her dedication to protect cultural heritage in some of the most dangerous and devastated areas of the world.

Just as groups of World War II soldiers were sent to Europe to recover Nazi stolen art, as depicted in the Hollywood film “The Monuments Men,” Wegener has traveled into war-torn countries to help museum staff save its cultural treasures.

Wegener will give a lecture titled “From Berlin to Baghdad: When Art Historians Go to War" at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 2 in the Spencer Museum of Art Auditorium. Wegener will deliver the lecture because she is being honored by the Kress Foundation Department of Art History as the 2014 Franklin D. Murphy Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient. The department and the Spencer Museum of Art are sponsoring the lecture. 

Wegener was sent to Iraq in 2003 after thousands of artifacts were looted from the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. Inspired by her experience there, she founded the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, a nonprofit organization that Wegener describes as the Red Cross of culture and heritage. Today, Wegener is a cultural heritage preservation officer for the Smithsonian Institution. She has worked with museum staff in Egypt, Libya, Mali, Syria and Haiti.

Linda Stone-Ferrier, chair of KU’s history of art department, said the department is honored to recognize Wegener with the award.

“Corine has made a profound difference in the national and international art world through her extraordinary contributions, especially under harrowing conditions in Baghdad during the Iraq war,” Stone-Ferrier said. “Additionally through her work with the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield and at the Smithsonian Institution, Corine has significantly helped raise awareness worldwide that a nation’s cultural heritage must be protected and preserved. She has brought great distinction to herself and to her alma mater.”

In the spring of 2003 during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Wegener was an assistant curator of decorative arts, textiles and sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and about to be deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army Reserve. From her living room, she began following reports of looters ransacking Iraq’s prized collection of Mesopotamian relics at the Iraq National Museum.

“I was really shocked from a military perspective knowing that the military has planners that look at how to prevent damage to cultural heritage sites when we are doing military operations,” Wegener said. “From an art historian’s perspective, my heart really went out to the staff there because I can only imagine how devastating that must be.”

Wegener made a few phone calls to inquire about the Army’s response to the looters. Those calls prompted the Army to redirect her deployment from Afghanistan to Baghdad, where she served as a military liaison to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture.

Once in Iraq, she assisted museum staff and law enforcement in recovering stolen objects and repairing the damage done by looters. Along with a policy that allowed amnesty to looters that returned artifacts, sting operations were put into place with law enforcement officers posing as buyers for the looted material.

In all, 40 to 50 percent of the 15,000 items that went missing were returned. For Wegener, the most thrilling recovery was the Lady of Warka sculpture, a 5,000-year-old carved marble female mask that is thought to be one of the earliest known naturalistic representations of a female goddess.

After nine months in Iraq, Wegener retired from the Army and returned to her position in Minneapolis. But her experience in Iraq showed her that there were other liked-minded people who wanted to do more to protect cultural heritage worldwide. She began forming networks of people with the aim to convince U.S. leaders to officially ratify the 1954 Hague Convention, an international treaty that requires countries to prevent the destruction of cultural property in times of war. 

To support the implementation of the 1954 Hague Convention, Wegener founded and led the nonprofit organization the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield. In 2008, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty. And, the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield began to help train U.S. military units deploying abroad so they could better protect cultural heritage.

 “They have really raised their level of training and awareness in the last 10 years in a way that I didn’t think was possible back in 2003,” Wegener said.

In 2012, Wegener took the position of cultural heritage preservation officer at the Smithsonian Institution. It’s a role that recently has taken her to Turkey to train curators on how to protect artifacts caught in the opposition-controlled areas of Syria, to Egypt to assess the damage caused by a truck bomb that exploded near the Museum of Islamic Art and to Mali to work with museum staff on emergency planning and how to better connect to the community.

“You can’t really go forward, if you can’t see where you have been,” Wegener said of the importance of cultural preservation during times of chaos. “We owe it to our children and their children to be able to tell the story of what happened, even if there has been a horrible tragedy.”

While at KU, Wegener said she never thought her graduate degrees in art history and political science would lead to the career she has today. But she’s thankful both degrees gave her a broad liberal arts education.

“I just thought I was someone who couldn’t make up their mind on what master’s degree I wanted,” Wegener said. “I was able to tie all these things together in a career field that I never even knew existed when I was getting my master’s at KU. And, that is the message that I hope to bring to students – whatever you are studying now, you will probably use it in something you haven’t even thought of.” 

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

RT @kulibraries : Check out this news feature & then check out his book with us: #KULibraries #KUWorks…
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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