Founder, president of Monuments Men Foundation speaks at Tate Lecture Series

The Tate Lecture Series presented its second speaker of the 2015-2016 season: SMU alumnus, Robert Edsel on Tuesday, Oct. 20.

Edsel is the founder and president of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. This foundation aims to honor “the legacy of the men and women who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, known as the ‘Monuments Men,’ and their unprecedented and heroic work protecting and safeguarding civilization’s most important artistic and cultural treasures from armed conflict during World War II.”

Not only is Edsel the founder of the Monuments Men Foundation, but he is a bestselling author of three books about the recovery and preservation of World War II art, one of which was turned into a movie directed by and starring George Clooney. According to Edsel, his work includes “years of service dedicated to World War II veterans who volunteered to save World War II art from the Nazis.”

Edsel began his speech by asking all of the veterans in the audience to stand up and be recognized for their service, to which the audience responded with bursting applause.

Edsel recalled how he began the foundation after working in the oil and gas business for years. While traveling in 2002, he found himself asking questions about how World War II art was saved and recovered.

In 2007, Edsel created the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, which was established on the 63rd anniversary of D-Day. The foundation was “in a race against time from the onset,” due to the age of the veterans they were trying to track down, hear stories from, and honor, Edsel said.

These veterans “protected cultural treasures from armed forces,” Edsel said, and dedicated their lives to safeguarding artistic treasures. Due to these 354 men and woman who put their lives in jeopardy, millions of works of arts were saved.

“We want to preserve and utilize their legacy,” Edsel said.

In his speech, Edsel not only highlighted the veterans that he and his foundation found and recorded the stories of, but he also discussed works of art that the team recovered and were able to return back to the families and museums that rightfully owned them. Such works included sculptures, paintings and works of writing, including eight books more than 500 years old. Yet Edsel asserted that “the most exciting discoveries were the people discoveries.”

In 2010 and 2011, the work of the foundation, according to Edsel, was not finished. Still aiming to spread awareness about the Monuments Men around the globe, he and his coworkers looked to bigger outlets to share their message and the stories of these men and women.

This led to the creation of the film “The Monuments Men.” The film, with an all-star cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Kate Blanchet, premiered in more than 100 countries and was translated into more than 30 languages. The film helped spread the importance and bravery of the Monuments Men around the globe.

Numerous historical and governmental groups have recognized Edsel and his foundation, and he continues to speak at universities, high schools and to the general public in an effort to spread awareness about and share the importance of the Monuments Men.

Edsel continues to work with museums and veterans, and plans to continue writing about these men and women and his experience with the organization The foundation is being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C. Thursday, Oct. 22. This is the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States, and coverage of the ceremony will be featured on speaker.gov/live.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of funding, the foundation will be closing at the end of the month after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal Award. On Tuesday, Edsel apologized to the men and women of the Monuments Men Foundation for the work that he was unable to finish. However, the legacy of the Monuments Men will continue through Edsel and his independent work, along with the stories of the veterans who bravely rescued such incredible pieces of history.

Edsel, choking up while closing his speech, recounted how this 15-year journey happened so quickly, urging the audience to recognize the importance of “living a life of meaningfulness.”

Edsel ended the night by saying that he is “truly the luckiest man on the face of this earth for knowing these men and women,” and for being given “the chance to do something that I love that has perhaps made the world a little better.”

The Tate Lecture Series continues on Tuesday, Dec. 1, with speaker Ken Burns. For more information on upcoming speakers and ticket sales, visit smu.edu/tateseries.

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