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‘Monuments Men’ highlights WWII looting, but stealing culture has been around for ages

Melissa Byrnes, assistant professor of history at Southwestern, helped put the practice of looting art into perspective with a piece that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman April 6, 2014:

George Clooney’s latest movie, “The Monuments Men,” takes viewers on a beautifully filmed journey through Europe in the last years of the Second World War. The plot follows a group of western Allied soldiers charged with saving the masterworks of European civilization from the retreating Nazis — and the advancing Soviets. Where, though, did this fascination with cultural heritage begin?

Cultural artifacts have long been seized as prizes for military victory. This tradition can be traced back to the myth of the Golden Fleece, stolen by Jason and his Argonauts. The celebratory stone tablet of Naram-Sim was seized by the Elamites around 1250 B.C., later claimed by 19th-century French excavators and now sits in the Louvre. Homer recounts the Greek sacking of Troy, while the Bible tells of Nebuchadnezzar raiding the Temple of Solomon.

The Romans had a voracious appetite for cultural acquisition. Victory parades marched artworks through Rome along with prisoners as signs of military and political triumph. The Romans captured massive amounts of Greek art, sacked Jerusalem, and were some of the first to abscond with Egyptian artifacts. Entire obelisks were shipped back to Rome, symbolizing both the Roman fascination with Egypt as a great civilization and Roman imperial dominance over their Egyptian province.

Centuries later, the Crusades offered new access to fabulous riches. The infamous Fourth Crusade never reached the Holy Land. Instead, crusaders plundered the Christian capital of Constantinople in their desire to claim the wealth and artistic heritage of Byzantium. The most famous theft from this period was that of four bronze horses, which the Venetians brought back to install in the façade of San Marco’s Basilica.

But the man who truly made an art out of art theft was Napoleon Bonaparte, who enlisted archaeologists and other scholars to join his campaigns across Europe, down the Italian peninsula, and especially into Egypt.

Read more here.

Southwestern University English Professor Talks About 12 Years a Slave

Most people were not aware of the story of Solomon Northup until it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie.

But Carina Evans, assistant professor of English at Southwestern University, has been familiar with the story of the free black man who was sold into slavery long before it was discovered by Hollywood.

12 Years a Slave was one of the slave narratives that Evans used in her Ph.D. thesis, which compared slave narratives published in the 19th century with the way slavery has been depicted in contemporary “neoslave narratives” such as Beloved and The Known World.

12 Years a Slave was a powerful narrative to portray the evils of slavery to a 19th century audience,” Evans says.

Although Evans describes Northup’s narrative as “beautifully written,” she says it has historically been overlooked in favor of other narratives, such as those written by Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs. But all that has changed with the release of the movie.

“The movie has created a whole new audience for Solomon Northup,” Evans says. She says she expects that 12 Years a Slave will become part of the standard texts taught in high schools and colleges.

Evans is developing a course titled “Representing Slavery” that she plans to teach at Southwestern next spring. The course will compare slave narratives with how slavery is depicted in recent movies such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained.”

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