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.”