Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution Announces the Conservation and Digitization of the Recently Acquired George Stout Diaries

By the Archives
December 17, 2021
Photograph of a George Stout diary entry, May 20 and 21, 1945.

The Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution is pleased to announce that the recently acquired four volumes of diaries by art conservator and World War II Monuments Man, Lieutenant Commander George Leslie Stout are now fully digitized and available online. Dating from June 15, 1944 to August 11, 1946, the diaries recount, with clarity and precision, Stout’s extraordinary record of recovering and conserving artwork throughout Europe and Japan during the later years of the war. 

Stout’s legacy lives on in the context of related collections at the Archives, such as the papers of Monuments Men Lieutenant Commander S. Lane Faison, Lieutenant Commander Thomas Carr Howe, and Captain James J. Rorimer, among others.  The Archives of American Art also holds in trust for the nation the Congressional Gold Medal awarded in 2015 to the Monuments Men for their courageous efforts. The recently conserved diaries are now reunited with the papers Stout donated in 1978.

“These modest, unassuming notebooks, in George Stout’s neat script and detailed descriptions, document his efforts and those of his fellow Monuments Men and Women aided by local stewards to save treasured artworks, artifacts, and architecture amid the unimaginable carnage, destruction, and looting of World War II. Stout’s diaries provide a record of how a scholar/scientist served as a foot-soldier for cultural heritage when it mattered most. Now, joining the Smithsonian's collections, they take on an iconic status and purpose, inspiring many who follow in his footsteps,” says Dr. Richard Kurin, Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large. 

A close up of George Stout diary entry, May 20 and 21, 1945 on a white background

George Stout diary entry, May 20 and 21, 1945. George Leslie Stout papers.

George Stout was a prominent art conservator working at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum and a major proponent of art preservation. After serving in the military during World War I, Stout enlisted with the Navy in 1943, and was one of the first to be recruited to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA). As an MFAA officer, Stout supervised the inventory and removal of several thousand artworks and artifacts stolen by the Nazis and hidden in locations as varied as palaces, churches, and salt mines. Often working with limited resources and unreliable lines of communication, Stout developed inventive conservation practices such as converting German sheepskin coats and gas masks into makeshift packaging materials. He was eventually awarded the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal for his efforts. 

George Stout diary pages on a table during conservation process

George Stout diaries during conservation.

The first three diaries, dating from June 15, 1944 to August 19, 1945, recount his departure from London, his activities in France and Germany, and eventual return to the United States. His fourth diary, from his time in Japan, dates from September 20, 1945 to August 11, 1946. In this volume, he writes about his arrival in Tokyo, reports on reparations concerning Chinese cultural treasures looted by invading Japanese forces during WWII, and develops policies and procedures for the protection of Japanese monuments. 

Stout details his experiences surveying war damages and the recovery of Nazi-impounded artworks throughout his diaries. On July 29, 1944, Stout inspected an 11th century Romanesque Abbey in Normandy, just on the heels of the retreating Germany army, “Had to take round-about road because of tank overturned on pontoon bridge near Lessay. Walked in from edge of town (stepped over dead German). Vehicle held outside. [Area heavily mined and inspection limited.]” He sketched a plan of the building. Stout describes discovering and recovering looted treasures, often hidden deep in underground mines, some booby-trapped with bombs, including such works as the Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. Stout’s temporary duty orders are also preserved in his diaries. 

These extraordinary records of heroism and cultural recovery, recount in great detail the considerable logistical problems Stout faced while recovering artwork. Packing and transporting stolen works was a monumental task and his workforce of displaced persons and Allied prisoners of war were weak. The Monuments Men were running short on rations, their trucks broke down, roads were blocked, and his duty orders within liberated and conquered areas were temporary. At 0430 on April 15, 1945, he wrote, “No time for sleep.” 

Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI) director Corine Wegener describes the significance of the acquisition: "I’m extremely proud that Stout’s wartime diaries are joining his collected papers at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Today’s Army Civil Affairs Monuments Officers, and all of us who have served in this capacity since WWII, take inspiration from Stout’s writings that clearly demonstrate his dedication to technical excellence and to helping his fellow MFAA officers preserve the world’s cultural heritage. It is so important that the Archives is dedicated to conserving, housing, and digitizing these artifacts for the public and for future generations.” 

The Archives owes a debt of gratitude to Richard Kurin, Corine Wegener, and the many others who made this acquisition possible. At the Archives of American Art, the diaries are now conserved, digitized, returned to the context of George Stout’s papers, and held in trust for the nation. This project is generously supported by donations from Paul Neely; David Copperfield in memory of Kelly Asbury; Deborah Lehr and John Rogers; Ambassador Nicholas F. Taubman; the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Foundation; Jeffrey P. Cunard and Mariko Ikehara; the Elbrun and Peter Kimmelman Family Foundation, Inc.; Peter and Paula Lunder; William and Christine Ragland in memory of William McKenzie Ragland Lt. JG, U.S. Navy, Pacific Theater, WWII; The Kurin Family in honor of WWII Veteran Saul Kurin; Paul and Corine Wegener; and Judy and Bob Huret.

Explore the fully digitized diaries here.

About the Monuments Men

In June of 1943, President Roosevelt approved the formation of the "American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas," widely known as the "Roberts Commission,” which subsequently formed the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA). Better known as the Monuments Men, this group of approximately 345 men and women from 14 nations worked to protect or recover monuments and other cultural treasures from destruction during World War II. By the end of the war, the group composed of museum directors, curators, historians, artists, architects, librarians, educators, and others had recovered countless objects and artworks. Some of the most significant works rescued, protected, or evacuated due to air raids and ground warfare were the Ghent Altarpiece, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, Rembrandt’s 1645 self-portrait, and the original manuscript of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, among others.