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Modern-day Monuments Men: The State Department's Cultural Heritage Center

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Last week, I was honored to attend a screening of The Monuments Men at the White House. Currently in theaters, The Monuments Men tells the story of a group of art experts sent to Europe during World War II to find and save art masterpieces from the clutches of the Nazis.

Events similar to those recounted in the movie are unfolding every day around the world. It's a little less dramatic, but the work by the State Department to preserve, protect, and recover works of art is as vital today as it was in World War II. Today's villains are more likely to be transnational organized crime syndicates that traffic in stolen antiquities that fetch big dollars on the global market, but threats also come from crisis situations and natural disasters.

So, the State Department has a team of experts whose mission is to care for and protect the cultural heritage of countries around the world. The art historians, archaeologists, and architectural historians of the Cultural Heritage Center, part of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, don't carry guns, but these new soldiers of diplomacy work on the frontlines to safeguard a country's cultural treasures. They provide expert guidance on protecting and restoring sites, and work with international law enforcement to prevent looted items from entering the United States.

For instance, they were on the scene after the Iraq Museum was looted in 2003. They worked with the International Council of Museums on methods to counter recent looting in Syria. They are helping to restore treasured national sites like Thailand's Wat Chaiwathanaram and the Ishtar Gate at the site of ancient Babylon. And grants from the Center's Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation have supported efforts in countries throughout the world, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Peru, Jordan, Libya, Mongolia, and Uganda, to preserve damaged monuments and archaeological sites.

At the White House screening of the film, the Cultural Heritage Center experts met the actors and producers of The Monuments Men, bringing Hollywood and Washington's cultural protectors together. The actors noted that our modern-day monuments men and women embody the spirit and the work exemplified by the soldiers in the film to preserve our shared world heritage. As a vital tool of foreign policy, their efforts to celebrate and preserve diverse heritages broaden and strengthen the foundation of our relationships with other nations, protect cultural identity, and support economic growth.