George Stout’s Legacy in Conservation

By Francesca G. Bewer
February 7, 2014
Index Magazine

George Stout’s Legacy in Conservation

George Stout oversees the packing and removal of Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges in the mines at Altaussee, Austria, July 1945. Using the best material he could find in the repository, Stout wrapped the statue in Belgian lace. Courtesy National Gallery, Washington, DC, Gallery Archives.

The film The Monuments Men is bringing much-deserved attention to the group of men and women who risked their lives to protect and recover art during World War II—including former Fogg Museum conservator George Stout (the inspiration for George Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes). What many may not know, however, is how Stout and his colleagues at the museum helped lay the foundation for such an enormous endeavor, well before the Monuments Men ever set foot in Europe. Stout’s experience at the Fogg would prove instrumental not only to his role in the Allied mission to protect cultural heritage, but also to his success in furthering the field of conservation after the war.

When George Leslie Stout first came to Harvard in 1926 to study art history and work at the university’s art museum, he could not have suspected that this decision would lead him to laboring in the salt mines in Austria almost two decades later. Stout was drawn to the Fogg Museum for its unique approach of applying science to the study and preservation of art. Director Edward W. Forbes and Associate Director Paul J. Sachs, who envisioned the Fogg as a laboratory for art, introduced Stout to the world of restoration and technical research. The museum would become a premier training ground for museum professionals in the United States, including a number of the Monuments Men.

In 1928, Forbes established the Fogg’s Department for Technical Studies and named Stout the museum’s first conservator. Over the next few decades, in partnership with staff chemist Rutherford John Gettens and others, Stout helped raise the standards in the profession. They experimented with treatments, standardized examination and documentation procedures, and produced scientific data on a wide range of topics. In 1932 they launched Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts, the first journal dedicated to conservation-related research. By providing an arena for the open exchange of scientifically based knowledge and ideas, the journal was seminal to the growth of the field of conservation, both in the United States and abroad. And Gettens and Stout’s book, Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia, was immediately recognized as an invaluable resource for artists and those concerned with preserving art. It remains a standard reference work for conservators.

As the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 increased fears that the fighting might reach this country’s shores, Stout provided the museum community with information, drawn from European publications, on the emergency protection of works of art during wartime. In these early years of the war he also spearheaded a conference at the Fogg for museum professionals worried about the protection of cultural heritage, and he co-edited a “first aid” manual for the armed forces, called Notes on Safeguarding and Conserving Cultural Material in the Field.

Finally, when concern for works of art in war zones reached a crescendo, Stout and Paul Sachs, along with Harvard University dean George Chase, mobilized museum directors and museum associations to petition the government to create a formal program to protect monuments overseas. With growing pressure from academic and cultural institutions in the Boston area and beyond, the government soon formed the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, also known as the Roberts Commission (1942–47) after its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. Sachs was in charge of selecting men and women to represent the commission in the field, in a section officially called Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A), or the Monuments Men. Stout was an obvious choice. He and Sheldon Keck, who had also trained at the Fogg, were the only conservators in the group. Most others were art historians and museum professionals, a number of whom were Sachs’s former students.

Stout arrived in Europe in 1944 and stayed two years. Because the MFA&A was not considered a military unit, Stout and the other Monuments Men had little logistical support or rank within the military hierarchy. But the few hundred officers who were spread across Europe managed to perform an incredible job against huge odds. Traveling in small numbers close to the front lines, the officers initially helped with emergency repairs of objects, found storage, documented the condition of monuments and works of art, tried to track down treasures that had been legitimately evacuated from museums for safekeeping or that had been stolen, and safeguarded cultural property against U.S. armed forces. As inspector-at-large, Stout used his skills in creating systems and organizing: he outlined procedures for documenting objects and indexing monuments. And after the U.S. army discovered thousands of repositories of hidden and confiscated cultural objects while moving into Germany and Austria, Stout helped uncover some of the most spectacular repositories, starting with the Siegen mine. Stout’s training as a conservator proved essential in the next phase of the project, when he spearheaded efforts to find safe places to store these retrieved objects, to pack the works, and to ensure their safe handling and transportation. He also trained others so that they could complete the daunting project.

At the end of the war, Stout was among those responsible for administering one of the earliest collection points set up for retrieved objects, and he helped select the officer to run the central collection point in Munich. He also served as chief of the Arts and Monuments Division of the Civil Information and Education Service for the Far East in Japan and helped with postwar preservation and restitution efforts.

The experience of handling displaced works of art on such a large scale raised awareness of the environmental factors and hazards involved in transporting them. This, in turn, attracted more people to the field of conservation. Stout’s longtime efforts to professionalize the field were finally successful in 1950, when he helped found the first international conservation association, serving as the organization’s first president. Now known as the International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC), the IIC formalized the international network of scientists, conservators, and museum officials, reestablishing much-needed arenas for the exchange of ideas and knowledge. In 1972 the American branch of the IIC developed into the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC). Thus, the many international connections that were forged before, during, and just after the war helped lay the groundwork for these professional organizations, all of which are still in existence today.

George Stout’s legacy of leading the charge to protect and rescue works of art during the war will remain popular, but his leadership in the development of conservation is equally important. His early work at the Fogg Museum is carried on today in the Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, which remains a pioneer in developing new methods and techniques in the field and contributes to the education of museum professionals around the world.

Further Resources — Archives of American Art. “Monuments Men: On the Frontline to Save Europe's Art, 1942–1946.” — Bewer, Francesca G. A Laboratory for Art: Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Emergence of Conservation in America, 1900–1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museum, 2010. — Brey, Ilaria Dagnini. The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy’s Art During World War II. New York, NY: Picador, 2010. — Brey, Ilaria Dagnini. “How the Monuments Men Saved Italy’s Treasures.” Smithsonian, January 2014. — Edsel, Robert and Bret Witter (contributor). The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. New York: Center Street, 2010. — Kino, Carol. “Monuments Man in War, Conservationist in Peace.” New York Times, March 19, 2014. — Nicholas, Lynn. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Vintage, 1995. — Stoner, Joyce Hill. “Pioneers in American Museums: George L. Stout,” Museum News 56 (1978): 16–18.

Francesca G. Bewer is Research Curator at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, at the Harvard Art Museums.