REHOBOTH — Sometimes it’s a good fit. Sometimes it’s a great fit. Rarely is it a perfect fit.
But U.S. Army Reserve Captain Blake Ruehrwein, a Rehoboth resident and native of Bridgewater, may have found a perfect fit.
As a member of a military family, with six of the seven Ruehrwein siblings serving in the military, and an artist turned curator by career, Ruehrwein, who is an Air Force veteran, works as director of education and public outreach for the Naval War College Museum in Newport, RI.
And in April he reenlisted as a commissioned officer with the Army Reserves to work with the modern-day equivalent of the famed World War II Monuments Men.
The two posts — his day job at the museum and role as a commissioned officer with the Reserve — seem to be at the precise crossroads of Ruehrwein’s life experiences with the military and lifelong passion for art, culture and heritage.
On April 9, Ruehrwein was sworn in as a captain with his older brother, Chandler Ruehrwein, a career military man with time served in the Marines and Army, reading the oath of office during a ceremony at the Army National Guard Armory in Rehoboth.
New adventure starts with an email intended as a joke
“I think the story of how I got this opportunity with the Army is kind of funny,” recalled Ruehrwein.
“So, two of my siblings that are in the military have done 20 years. One of them is retired, one of them close to retiring. And so since so many of us were in the military it was always a joke, kind of, that they would be the two that had been over 20 years, and they would joke with us about joining again and doing 20 years as well.
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“And so my oldest brother, Christian — he was one of the ones that did 20 years — he saw this article in the New York Times about the Army starting this new Monuments Men program and they were looking for people with museum experience. And so he sent it out as a joke, copied all of us saying, ‘Hey, this is the only thing that could get Blake back in the military,’ not realizing that it would eventually be true.”
The Oct. 21, 2019 article headlined “The Army is Looking for a Few Good Art Experts,” revealed to Ruehrwein the Army was readying to revive its Monuments Men program for the first time since World War II and indeed looking for a few “museum directors or curators, archivists, conservators and archaeologists.”
“So, probably a month or so after he sent that out, this was 2019, I applied for the Army Reserve program. And then I was accepted in March of 2020,” Ruehrwein said.
Monuments Men for the modern world
The 2014 movie Monuments Men, based on the 2007 book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel and starring A-list actors Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bill Murray and John Goodman, details the efforts of the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program to locate, protect and preserve works of art and cultural importance during the Nazi invasion of Europe during World War II.
In 2009, the United States ratified the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property. The convention requires each participating nation to “to plan or establish in peace-time, within their armed forces, services or specialist personnel whose purpose will be to secure respect for cultural property and to co-operate with the civilian authorities responsible for safeguarding it.”
Today’s cultural heritage preservation officers, or monuments officers for short, like Ruehrwein, don’t follow quite the same script. Instead, they are stationed at military bases around the country and serve as liaisons and information sources to ground units deployed in conflicts and natural disasters.
“It’s a range of different activities,” Ruehrwein said. “One is advising commanders on fulfilling this legal obligation that we now have under The Hague Convention, which is having people whose specialty is cultural heritage preservation as part of the Armed Services.
“So when a commander is designing operations or exercises, or operating generally in some theater, the Monuments officer will be right there with them in the discussions of who to talk to, about what might concern the people in the host nation in the theater of operations.”
From the military to the art world and back again
Ruehrwein served in the Air Force from 2000-2004, and at the conclusion of his enlistment came home to pursue a degree in painting and sculpting at Bridgewater State University. He then moved to New York City where he attained master’s degree in art history and museum studies at City College of New York. It was in this period the transformation from artist to curator and educator began.
“Yeah, I like to think that I was born an artist. I moved to New York originally as a painter and sculptor after my undergrad, but then through my master’s degree and other work, being a painter, sculptor evolved into becoming a curator.
Ruehrwein said he had an independent curatorial practice in New York where he worked with artists and put on shows and events. But then in 2017, he moved home to Massachusetts with his wife Amber and first born son, Asa, settling in Rehoboth and teaching art history at Mass Bay Community College and Bridgewater State. Today, Blake and Amber have three children: Asa, 6, Lexi, 4, and Kensie, 2.
Landing at the Naval War College Museum, and now with the new Monuments Men program, Ruehrwein seems to have come full circle and stuck the landing.
“It does feel like it was tailor made for me,” he said.
“I worked for a lot of different museums and organizations there (New York City). I worked for the 9/11 museum in New York City. But I never imagined that things would come full circle and I would have the opportunity to join the military and continue my work in the cultural and heritage industry.”
The road ahead
“I’m looking forward to using these experiences and skills in the setting of the military to show everybody else in the military of what I am convinced of, always have been, that the military and the cultural sector, you might think of those as two things that have nothing to do with each other but in fact they’re very closely related in their missions and in a lot of the things that they do.
“And so to me that’s always been evident, and now I get to show people, especially people in the military, how closely they are aligned.”