Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #079. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Feb 24, 2014; in print Feb. 25


There’s no readily apparent link between a movie I just saw, “The Monuments Men,” and a recent news story about brain mapping. But there is a deep connection that gets to the heart of community — belief about who owns what.

“The Monuments Men” tells the true story — condensed, and with a few embellishments — of a remarkable decision by President Franklin D. Roosevelt toward the end of World War II. He said yes to a proposal by George Stout, a conservationist at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, to assemble art and architecture experts, make them soldiers, and send them to Europe to locate and recover artworks German officers had confiscated, many of them from Jews, to adorn their own homes and Hitler’s projected “Führer Museum.”

The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section — more than 300 volunteer men and women from 13 nations — eventually retrieved and returned more than 5 million artistic and cultural items robbed by the Nazis. One of the Monuments Men was George Selke, president of St. Cloud State Teachers College (now St. Cloud State University) from 1927-46.

Six Monuments Men are still living. One, Harry Ettlinger, a German-born American who was 20 years old at the time, recently stated succinctly what I believe is the lasting meaning of the enterprise: “We Americans, for the first time in the history of civilization, adopted a policy which said that to the victor do not belong the spoils of war.”

The character played by Cate Blanchett is based quite accurately on Paris museum employee Rose Valland, who was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1948. Blanchett’s character is wary of the Americans, incredulous that they are trying to rescue the artworks not for booty but to restore them to those from whom they were stolen.

Frank Stokes, based on Stout, the Harvard conservationist, and played by George Clooney, states the grounding for the unprecedented U.S. policy: These artworks belong to everyone; no one “owns” them.

And brain mapping?

There is a huge enterprise called the Human Connectome Project (by analogy with “Genome”), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The story caught my attention mainly because it’s a fascinating subject, but also because the University of Minnesota is a major player.

The best thing about it: No one is fencing it in.

The project depends on technology that portrays brain structure down to 0.0001 cubic inch, and the way information flows in the brain can be traced. Each of 1,200 volunteers spends 10 hours in MRI scans and other tests.

Scientists assemble and organize the information into a database from which others who want to treat Alzheimer’s or understand mental illness or get insights into creativity can draw.

What most intrigues me is a dramatic shift in academic protocol and intellectual activity more generally, a shift I find as hopeful as it is unexpected.

The main informant for the news report, professor Deanna Barch of Washington University, put it this way: “The amount of time and energy we’re spending collecting this data, there’s no possible way any one research group could ever use it to the extent that justifies the cost. But letting everybody use it — great!” With a click of the mouse, anyone in the world — including some 40,000 brain scientists — has access.

Sharing. Letting everybody use it. I fully understand the need for protections of intellectual property, but the academic world, the ecclesiastical world, the business world and the public world have all been hobbled by a too-exclusive focus on keeping to oneself what one knows. Nobody “owns” the knowledge being assembled by the Connectome Project.

I can imagine the Monuments Men giving a thumbs-up to Barch’s “Letting everybody use it — great!”