One Hundred Years at the Library: Monuments Men and Women

In celebration of the centennial of the Frick Art Reference Library, peek into the past one hundred years of the library’s remarkable history through important places, people, and objects from the collections. The objects featured are included in the commemorative publication One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library and are available for consultation in our reading room.

In this entry, we investigate a photograph from the 1940s to consider the role of the Frick Art Reference Library during World War II.

Two women and a man at a desk holding books and marking a map with pencils and rulers
Bill Burke and Jane Mull (center), members of the Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas, headquartered at the Frick Art Reference Library, working with Gladys Hamlin, draftswoman, on a map of Paris, 1943–44. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

The photograph above is often used to epitomize one of the most fascinating eras in the Frick Art Reference Library’s history: its cultural preservation efforts during World War II. The image was highlighted in a recent video, and the subjects have been identified as Bill Burke, Jane Mull, and Gladys Hamlin. The trio is shown behind a desk laden with books, huddled over a map of Paris that they’re carefully marking. We do not know much about how this image came about—who commissioned it, for example, or why.

What is clear is that the photograph was taken in the main Reading Room of the Frick Art Reference Library’s historic home at 10 East 71st Street. The woodwork of the cabinets, the lamp and chairs, and the panel above Burke match the details of that room. At left, the books on the table bear numbers that resemble the Dewey Decimal System but are actually those of the library’s in-house classification system (below).

Three people at a desk. At left, a group of books on the table is highlighted.

The Committee

What was the committee for which these three individuals were working? From July 15, 1943, to January 4, 1944, the Frick Art Reference Library closed to the public for the first time in its history to serve as the headquarters of the Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas, which was established by the American Council of Learned Societies. The committee mobilized the art historical community to respond to the atrocities in Europe, with a particular eye toward the extreme risks the war posed to cultural goods and sites. Hoping to avoid as much damage as possible to priceless sites and artworks, its members supplied information, maps, and guides to the U.S. military for use in the planning of raids, strikes, and other operations.

Learn more about the library’s cultural preservation efforts during World War II.

The committee was part of the Allied armies’ broader Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, whose members are popularly known as Monuments Men. The mapmaking efforts at the Frick stopped in early 1944, but some personnel remained to assist with the recovery and restitution of looted items after the war—an ongoing process that continues to this day, with support from materials like those held at the library.

The Mapmaking Process

The photograph gives some idea of the process of making the maps, more than seven hundred of which were produced at the Frick. Lists of cultural treasures were drawn up from travel guidebooks held at the library—including Baedeker Guides, Touring Club Italiano publications, and Guides Bleus. This information was supplemented by an early form of crowdsourcing, in the form of questionnaires sent out to academics and others who had recently visited Europe.

Next to Bill Burke in the photo, we can see a copy of one of these guides, the Bottin Mondain for 1938. Published annually in France beginning in 1903, the Bottin Mondain is a who’s who of society and cultural sites and institutions, from which committee members derived the names of museum curators, librarians, archivists, and custodians of monuments to be listed as contacts adjacent to the maps (see below).

Gridded map with a numbered key and other information listed to the right
View enlarged image; text transcribed below. A map of Pisa prepared by the Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas at the Frick Art Reference Library, 1943–44. The city’s key churches, palaces, monuments, and cultural institutions are labeled and rated with stars, along with a list of contacts. Thanks to materials like this, sites such as the famous Leaning Tower were spared from destruction during military operations.

The final lists of monuments and art objects were compiled from this information and sometimes rated with stars to denote significance. The monuments were numbered and their locations were marked on gridded tracing paper laid over maps supplied by the Library of Congress, the Army Map Service, and the American Geographical Society, or from the guidebooks themselves. To produce final versions (see the example above), these were then re-photographed by the library’s in-house photographers, Ira Martin and Thurman Rotan. The groups of maps with supplemental information were published as handbooks and, later, as smaller field guides.

The Photo’s Subjects

Three figures at a desk. A man at left is highlighted, holding a book with his hand to his chin.

Finally, we know their names, but who were the three people pictured in our photograph? William (Bill) Lozier Munro Burke is shown at left. Prior to joining the efforts at the Frick Art Reference Library, he had worked on the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University, a project begun in 1917 by Charles Rufus Morey, the vice-chair of the Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas. At the Frick, Burke served as a research assistant, and his previous association with Morey gives us clues into how the committee’s participants were recruited—largely through its leaders’ academic and professional connections in the field of art history.

Three people at a desk. A woman seated in the center is highlighted. She holds a book and is writing with a pencil.

Research assistant is also the title listed for both Jane A. Mull and Gladys E. Hamlin. Unfortunately, we do not know much about Mull. According to Lamont Moore, her supervisor at a similar committee, the so-called Second Roberts Commission, she had worked for a time in their London office, had an interest in contemporary art, and had helped curate a touring exhibition of photographs for LIFE Magazine. There is little trace of her afterwards.

Three people at a desk. A woman at right is highlighted. She is marking a map with a triangular ruler.

Gladys E. Hamlin had a master’s degree in art history from Columbia University and taught at Duke University from 1938–39. After working on the committee at the Frick, during which time she wrote the Field Protection of Objects and Archives guide for the U.S. Army, in 1945 she transferred to the Roberts Commission, where she worked with Burke and Mull to create a central repository of photographs of monuments and artworks damaged in the war. In 1949, she became a professor of art history at Iowa State University, retiring in 1973.

The photograph of Burke, Mull, and Hamlin is plainly staged, with the map’s title and the spines of the books facing out toward the viewer. And though Gladys Hamlin has been listed as “draftswoman,” it is likely given her background that she did much more. Photographs like this one offer important evidence of the past, but we must always ask why and how they came about. Nonetheless, this image gives us a glimpse into the day-to-day environment of the cultural preservation efforts at the Frick. Thanks to the unnamed photographer that day, we can better appreciate the contributions of the individuals who did their part to combat the all-consuming destruction of World War II.

Learn more about the history and offerings of the Frick Art Reference Library at Discover all one hundred objects in One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library. To explore more content celebrating the library’s centennial, watch our video series on YouTube, subscribe to our e-news, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

One Hundred Years at the Library is supported in part by Virginia and Randall Barbato.

Link: Tags:
Facebook Twitter Threads