The administrative areas at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts can be rather labyrinthine, and are also closed off to the general public, so Corine Wegener, the diminutive assistant curator for the Department of Architecture, Design, Decorative Arts, Craft, and Sculpture, agrees to meet me outside the gift shop. After we pass through the security doors behind the shop, the lighting grows dimmer and the corridors narrow. “I don’t notice the darkness anymore,” says Wegener with a laugh. Suddenly, she takes a hard right into the copier closet that has been repurposed as her office.
She nods at a framed poster of a suit of armor. “That was sitting in here when I got back.” She offers me a chair, settles into her own, and surveys a space smaller than a jail cell. Behind her hangs another poster, one promoting a show of the MIA’s modernist design collection. Stacked with volumes on guns, armor, Judaica, American decorative arts, and Nazi-era provenance, two bookshelves loom over her small desk. A yellow lanyard with “Go Army Reserve” printed across its length hangs from the doorknob.
“I’m not sure where I should start.” Wegener unpacks a laptop from her black Lands’ End backpack. She wears a pink cardigan that wards off the museum’s ever-present chill and that, together with her smooth skin, hazel eyes, and short blonde hair, makes her seem much younger than her forty years. Opening a computer folder cluttered with images, she clicks rapidly through dozens of dusty desert scenes, and stops at a snapshot of a U.S. Army general smiling beside a rosy-cheeked soldier. Both wear helmets, desert fatigues, and body armor. “General Kern had this taken on my first day to prove that I was there,” she explains. “That’s the museum in the background.”
That day was May 16, 2003. One month earlier, the international press had begun reporting that the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, which houses the best and most comprehensive collection of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts in the world, had been looted in the aftermath of the American invasion. “A couple of days into the looting I received a phone call from Jennifer [Carlquist, curatorial assistant at the MIA],” Wegener recalls. “She said, ‘Cori, the Army’s looking for you.’” Five minutes later, Wegener was on the phone with officers at Fort Bragg, who asked if she could leave within twenty-four hours. “I said, ‘Is that an order?’ And they said, ‘No, but it could be.’” Wegener got two weeks to deploy. Her authorization was signed by a two-star general from the Army’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, and a three-star general from its Special Operations Command.
An Army Reservist for two decades, Major Corine Wegener is likely the only museum curator serving in the United States military. In that capacity, she is a part of a service tradition whose finest moments came during and after World War II. Wegener takes a thick volume down from her shelves and pages through photos of service members who helped locate, preserve, and conserve art treasures throughout Europe. First Lieutenant Frederick Hartt, for example, personally sandbagged Da Vinci’s Last Supper in advance of American bombs, and is thus rightly credited for saving it. He was also one of four managers of monuments, fine arts, and archives among Allied forces assigned to Florence during the invasion of Italy. “I work in that tradition,” Wegener says. “It’s an actual slot in the Army’s Civil Affairs Division.” The name of the position has changed, but not the role: Major Wegener was the U.S. Army’s arts, monuments, and archives manager in Iraq. “Until recently, there hasn’t been much call for it,” she says. “But I knew that the need would come up again.”
Though some may doubt the wisdom or necessity of preserving art and culture in wartime, the simple fact is that the United States is bound by treaty to do so—and also to protect and reliably administer, during an occupation, buildings related to art, science, and religion. If those obligations are to be taken seriously, then the experiences and recommendations of Major Wegener are to be taken seriously. After ten months in Iraq coordinating the most intense U.S. military effort to conserve cultural resources since World War II, Wegener returned home determined to improve what she could not control or improve on the ground in Iraq.
What actually happened at the Iraq National Museum in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Baghdad was misrepresented in the press from the very beginning. A page-one story in the New York Times, filed on April 12, 2003, by Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent John Burns, claimed “beyond contest … that the twenty-eight galleries of the museum and vaults with huge steel doors guarding storage chambers … had been completely ransacked.” Burns also suggested that “at least” 170,000 objects had been stolen, and other reports quickly upped the ante, claiming that as many as half a million objects were lost in the fray. It was a cultural disaster that some compared to the burning of the ancient library of Alexandria.
“You can see that the galleries weren’t totally looted,” Wegener says, opening an image on her computer that shows an almost empty gallery at the museum. In the forefront, a single glass display case is smashed and broken, but the cases surrounding it are all intact. “You sort of wonder why nobody in the media noticed that most of the cases were just left alone,” she sighs. “One broken case and a lot of empty, unbroken cases probably mean that most of the cases were empty to begin with.” Which, in fact, they were. In the months leading up to the American invasion, a group of five Iraqi cultural officials carefully “de-installed” most of the collections from the galleries and moved them to a secret site to prevent the expected looting of the collection. A pact was established not to reveal the location to anyone, and even today the location is still known only to the group and a select few additional figures, including Major Wegener. Reportedly, the site will be revealed only after Iraq’s new political system stabilizes and U.S. troops leave the country.
In the wake of the reported looting, the U.S. military was widely criticized for not protecting the Iraq National Museum during its invasion. Yet, in a very important sense, it did protect it: In fulfilling its treaty obligations, the U.S. placed the museum on a list of structures that were not to be bombed in the event of hostilities. It was a policy followed in the first Gulf War, too, and the Iraqi military knew enough to take advantage of it by stationing troops and setting up military facilities in and around cultural properties, including key archaeological sites and the Iraq National Museum. (This, of course, was in blatant disregard of Iraq’s treaty obligations.) Wegener clicks on several images showing bullet holes in the museum building, from U.S. troops firing at Iraqi snipers. She shows another displaying the entry and exit point of a tank shell in a museum tower, from which Iraqi soldiers were firing rocket-propelled grenades. Certainly, U.S. troops could have stormed the museum to extract the enemy, but “the decision was made not to get anyone out of there because too much damage would’ve been done,” says Wegener. How or why the Iraqi troops eventually left the museum is unknown.
What happened immediately after the invasion is more problematic. International treaties require an occupying force to protect cultural property from pillage. In practice, that can be difficult. In Iraq, for example, the United States military was simply unprepared to secure thousands of archaeological sites, which were subsequently looted. But could it have secured the Iraq National Museum, located in central Baghdad? Wegener is conflicted. “I was pretty unhappy about it at the time,” she says with a tight smile. “But I’m not going to second-guess the commanding general.”
For three days, April 10 to 12, 2003, looters roamed the museum, grabbing anything that could be removed and vandalizing whatever could not. Statues were smashed to pieces. Stone friezes were hacked. The museum’s offices were looted of their furniture and equipment. Nevertheless, for all of the damage, reports that 170,000 objects had been stolen are verifiably incorrect. “The reality is that the museum had 170,000 objects catalogued,” explains Wegener. “It has about 500,000 total.” In its rush to proclaim the total destruction of the museum, the media reported the catalogued numbers. And directly after the numbers shot up, the downward revisions began. On April 16, the New York Times printed a story that asserted the loss of “perhaps fifty thousand” objects. Then, on May 1, 2003, another Times story asserted that only twenty-nine objects had been confirmed stolen from the museum. Something was clearly getting lost in translation.
In fact, a total of twenty-eight display cases (not galleries) were looted. From those cases, forty-four objects were stolen. In addition, a major museum storage magazine was looted of objects that amount to thousands. Unfortunately, because many of those objects had not yet been catalogued, pinning down an actual number is difficult. “Right now we are roughly estimating that fourteen thousand objects were looted,” Wegener says. “And that will probably go up.” Despite the fact that the number of lost objects is smaller than initially reported, Wegener is adamant that the loss is no less heartbreaking. “Imagine if fourteen thousand objects were stolen from the Louvre, including the Mona Lisa. That’s what it’s like.”
Wegener spent her first several weeks in Iraq simply trying to get a handle on the situation. “There was a lot of pressure to get a precise inventory,” she recalls, “because Central Command was getting pounded in the press.” She shakes her head. “If you showed up here at the MIA and asked for a precise accounting of objects—now—I couldn’t do that. But that’s hard to explain to a colonel who doesn’t have museum experience.” In recounting her experience, Wegener skirts criticism and instead focuses upon what can and needs to be improved. It quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t so much a diplomatic maneuver as an approach born out of Wegener’s own sense of integrity, her respect for the military that she’s served for two decades—and her modesty in downplaying her own considerable skills while praising others.
Prior to her deployment, Wegener saw her role at the Iraq Museum as twofold: “I would assist the museum staff with their relationship with the military, and I would try to coordinate an international relief conservation effort.” Wegener opens an image of a smashed marble statue in one of the museum’s galleries, taken shortly after her arrival in Baghdad. It shows the pieces still scattered on the floor—and that’s where she wanted them to remain until a conservator could arrive. The military and political command had a different view, however. “They’d ask, ‘Why doesn’t the staff sweep up the statues?” Wegener tried to delay them, but as the weeks passed there was more and more pressure to make things tidy. “And so one day I arrived and the statues had been swept up,” she recalls with a sigh. “Not a good clean-up method.”
It was a frustrating situation made worse by the fact that the Iraq Museum had only one trained conservator—who worked solely with brass objects. “Every day I was writing memos begging, ‘I need help!’” says Wegener. Despite those pleas, and the availability of conservators from a number of countries willing to go to Iraq, help was often withheld for a variety of reasons. At times, the situation bordered on the comic: The British Museum could not obtain visas for its conservators, who ended up tagging along with a BBC team filming a documentary. The staff were only able to work at the Iraq Museum for a few days. Likewise, the U.S. Department of State sent an assessment team, including a conservator, but only for two weeks. Meanwhile, the Dutch, who actually maintain art conservators in their military, deemed the situation too dangerous to send them.
One American civilian who did make it to Iraq, and whose help was invaluable to Wegener, was John Russell, a professor of art history and archaeology at the Massachusetts College of Art. “John came at personal risk,” says Wegener. “He was really important.” Russell, a trained Assyriologist, provided a valuable archaeologist’s perspective both to the museum and several key archaeological sites in Iraq.
Italy provided the most help. Early on, they sent Ambassador Pietro Cordone as an advisor, and he was able to provide the museum with “cultural carbanieri”—essentially, police specially trained in protecting “cultural patrimony.” The Italians also provided funding and staff to re-establish a conservation laboratory in the museum. Nevertheless, Wegener was constantly faced with the fact that there was never—and probably never would be—enough help. “I was disappointed,” she admits. “I wish I could have done more.”
“People in the Army always say how weird it is that I’m in the Army,” Wegener says. “And in the museum world they always say how weird it is that I work in museums.” Following a learn-by-doing ethic, Wegener has mastered all of her primary curatorial responsibilities—American decorative arts, arms, armor, and Judaica—during her somewhat impromptu eight years at the MIA. Though not trained in architecture, one of her first projects at the MIA was to assist in cataloging its Prairie School collection, one of the top three in the U.S. “Have degree, will work on projects,” is how she sums up her early career as an art historian, but it’s clear that her spirited, up-for-anything approach still holds.
Sitting on a stairway in her South Minneapolis home, wearing an MIA T-shirt and sweats, she looks very much the urban liberal. Which she is, mostly. “Maybe I have a different opinion about guns.” Indeed. She curated last year’s controversial antique gun show at the MIA. “Christopher [Monkhouse, the MIA’s curatorial chair, and head of Wegener’s department] said, ‘You’ve fired a gun, so you’re one step ahead of everyone else in the department. You do it.’” The show opened while Major Wegener was in Iraq.
Born outside of Kansas City, Missouri, in 1963, Wegener recalls visiting museums as a child with her father, a musician, and watching World War II films with her grandfather, who served in that war as a truck mechanic. Joining the Army Reserve was primarily a way to earn money for college (she majored in political science at the University of Nebraska-Omaha), and also, she says, “maybe to rebel against my parents.” It was a decision that she has never regretted. “I found I liked the structure and challenge of military life.” The military brought Wegener other benefits, too, such as her husband, Paul, whom she met in ROTC and married in 1986.
After college, Wegener spent a year in law school before serving as a quartermaster officer in Germany during the first Gulf War. When she returned to the U.S., she began a masters degree in political science, with a concentration in international relations, at the University of Kansas. But as graduation approached, she decided that her goal of working in international affairs was unrealistic. “Those jobs don’t grow on trees,” she says. “So I asked myself, ‘What is my ideal job?’ And the answer was easy: I’d work in an art museum.”
Never mind that those jobs don’t grow on trees, either, especially when the applicant is an Army Reservist without an art background. Wegener was not deterred. She completed a masters in art history at the University of Kansas in 1996 and moved to Minneapolis, following her husband (who also continues to serve in the Reserve, recently as a logistics expert in Afghanistan). She quickly found an unpaid internship in the MIA’s decorative arts department.
Over the next four years Wegener assisted the MIA’s curators—while also taking time off to serve in Bosnia and Guam with the Army Reserve. After a short appointment as a curator at the Scott County Historical Society, the MIA called her back in 2001 to assist on its Prairie School catalog; last year, she was named an assistant curator.
Though she is probably the military’s only museum curator, Wegener has come into contact with other military personnel interested in saving art from the ravages of war. Two years ago, at a civil affairs conference, she had a discussion about the importance of maintaining arts, monuments, and archives managers as a component of the Army’s Civil Affairs Division, at a time when there was talk of eliminating them. Then, while preparing for her deployment to Iraq at Fort Bragg, Wegener met Roxanne Merritt, the civilian curator of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Museum. The pair discussed the fact that the Army, and particularly its soldiers, needed more training in wartime arts conservation. And so, in the aftermath of Wegener’s work in Iraq, Merritt and Wegener are collaborating on a cultural-property guide for U.S. Army personnel, aimed at training them in emergency conservation procedures—work that the pair is doing on a volunteer basis. For Wegener, it is a deeply personal project, shaped by her experiences at the Iraq National Museum.
“I thought I would get there and this group of combat conservators would parachute in. Instead it just seemed like there was this endless parade of people and organizations coming to take pictures, but nobody was staying to help.” Wegener’s chagrin becomes more apparent as she clicks through the images on her laptop of damaged artworks and artifacts. “I could cordon the shattered statue, sure, but I couldn’t put it back together. I needed someone who could put things back together.” Wegener was in constant contact with conservators in the United States and elsewhere, many of whom wanted to come to Iraq. “But I couldn’t get them in!”
One afternoon, not long after arriving in Baghdad, Wegener was in her office at the Ministry of Culture when she was tapped on the shoulder by Kristen Silverberg, a political advisor on loan from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office to Ambassador Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority. She was accompanied by Dr. Harold Rhode, a Near Eastern expert working for the Department of Defense. “We heard there’s a museum curator here,” Silverberg said. “Can we speak to you in the hallway?”
Silverberg and Rhode described how they had fished dozens of important antique Jewish manuscripts—including portions of a Bible dating from 1568, and extensive Jewish communal records from the early 20th century—from the flooded basement of the Iraqi secret police headquarters. Silverberg took a personal interest in the manuscripts and had, through her role in Bremer’s office, arranged for Rhode to visit Baghdad to assess the materials. Unfortunately, Rhode was a Near Eastern expert, but no conservator. Thus, after recovering the manuscripts (which had been submerged for more than a month), he and Silverberg made the unfortunate decision to dry them in the sunshine before placing them in tin cases, which were left to cook in a small concrete outbuilding behind Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress compound. By the time they went looking for Wegener, the manuscripts were moldering.
Wegener recounts this scenario while sitting cross-legged on her living room sofa. On the coffee table, her laptop displays an image of a rotting Hebrew manuscript, its pages black with mold and decay. “I was like, ‘Duh! You should’ve frozen them!’” Of course, Silverberg and Rhode can rightly be excused for not knowing the correct emergency conservation techniques. Less excusable, perhaps, is the fact that Wegener was the only individual in Iraq with even minimal training or knowledge on conservation matters. “I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m it. I can’t believe I’m the only one.’” Though she received some training, Wegener is no conservator. “I could only help them stabilize the situation.” After consulting by satellite phone with MIA staff and with Helen Alten, a conservator in St. Paul, she requested a refrigeration truck. Silverberg, perhaps drawing on her connections in Cheney’s office, obtained one from the KBR division of Halliburton; she also got two “very brave” conservators flown in from the National Archives to assess the situation. With Wegener, they agreed that the manuscripts would have to leave Iraq if they were to be saved.
“It’s against international law to remove [objects related to a country’s] cultural heritage if you’re an occupying force,” Wegener says, her brow rising. “But my concern was these manuscripts. They were rotting before our eyes.” Freezing them was only a temporary step in their preservation. Further actions would need to be taken—including a month-long freeze-drying process—before actual conservation could begin. “Yeah, I want to follow international law,” Wegener says. “But if we didn’t get the manuscripts out, they wouldn’t be a problem for anybody.” The National Archives in Washington, D.C., agreed to accept and conserve the manuscripts for a period of two years, at which time they would be returned to Iraq. In August 2003, Wegener accompanied the collection to Fort Worth, Texas, on a dedicated cargo plane. After freeze-drying, the documents were moved to Washington, D.C., but due to a lack of funding, no further conservation efforts have taken place.
For all its disappointments, Wegener’s tour of duty in Iraq was not without its successes. Wegener fondly recalls receiving a phone call from one of her “guys,” a Military Police officer who informed her: “I think we got that Head of Warka thing.” That Head of Warka thing was one of the most famous artifacts stolen from the Iraq National Museum—its Mona Lisa—and its recovery was celebrated by the international press, a rare high point in the aftermath of the war. Likewise, after a general amnesty was announced for the return of objects, three men drove up to the Museum to unload the shattered pieces of the Sacred Vase of Warka from the trunk of their car. Wegener regrets not witnessing the event.
Nevertheless, she had the privilege of being present for the so-called recovery of the Treasure of Nimrud. Only discovered in the late 1980s, this indescribably valuable trove of jewels, crowns, and other gold and precious stone artifacts was feared lost during the invasion, and had been reported as such by several media outlets. In fact, since the first Gulf War, the artifacts had been stored in a vault beneath the Iraq Central Bank. The location was not altogether secret: After the invasion, three corpses and the remnants of an exploded rocket-propelled grenade were reportedly found near the vault. To prevent additional and perhaps more intelligent attempts to steal the treasure, the bank manager flooded the basement with sewage.
“It smelled just awful,” Wegener says, groaning at the memory. “And it was so hot.” She took pictures of military personnel and museum staff showing everybody soaked in sweat, mingling outside the vault prior to its opening. “And we’re all standing around, waiting for the guy with the key! It seems like that’s how I spent half of my life in Iraq—waiting for the guy with the key.” When the vault was opened, the museum staff found the treasures intact, packed in wooden and tin cases that resembled old toolboxes from a musty basement. In Wegener’s photos, both tears and laughter are evident as museum staff handle crowns, jewels, and solid gold chains with somewhat unprofessional abandon. “But I kept my mouth shut,” she says. “It wasn’t my stuff.”
Wegener left Iraq on March 2, ten months after her arrival, and half a year after her scheduled departure. “Leaving the people and the museum was hard,” she says. “Leaving Iraq was not.” She shrugs and closes her laptop. “In regard to the museum, I’m not optimistic. But I am hopeful.” She cites the collection and the staff as her primary reasons for hope. “But it’s all about stability and their ability to reopen the museum to the public.”
As Wegener was leaving, a team of conservators arrived from Italy. “I’m just embarrassed that we didn’t send any,” she admits ruefully. It is not merely a matter of national pride or ego: Wegener’s inability to marshal conservators through the U.S. military and government means that many objects and resources were needlessly damaged or lost. “And that’s why it’s my cause now.”
Wegener’s work to create the Army’s emergency conservation manual is only one way she is pursuing the cause. Even more ambitiously, she wants to establish an international organization of combat conservators. “You know, these are people who would get a call and say, ‘I have to go to Iraq now,’” Wegener says with enthusiasm. “They come in a flak vest and helmet, I meet them at the airport, take them to work at the museum, and then replace them a few weeks later.” Though it may sound fanciful, precedents for such an organization already exist. “There are conservators who want to do it,” she says earnestly. “We just need to organize.” As she sees it, the organization would operate similarly to Doctors Without Borders, the international group of medical professionals who parachute into troubled regions and offer medical care, regardless of the political or military situation.
Meanwhile, Wegener remains in contact with her colleagues and friends at the museum in Baghdad. She takes a special interest in the conservation of a collection of historic photographs there, and is actively seeking supplies for their preservation. Still, she is reluctant to return herself. “I’d entertain the idea under certain circumstances. But I wouldn’t want to do it for the military again, to leave my own career for a year.” She shakes her head. “It’d be wonderful to go back to a politically stable Iraq and see my friends in that environment. I hope it works out, but I’m not very good at predictions.”