The only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas, "Ginevra de' Benci". One of the National Gallery's da Vinci drawings is protected in the WW3 box.
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
In case of emergency, terrorist attack, or rogue fire, 71-year-old National Gallery curator Andrew Robison is entrusted with protecting the best of America's prints, watercolors, and drawings. Turns out our nation’s top leaders aren’t the only ones with emergency escape plans — our art has one too, according to an in-depth report by the Washington Post.
In the last decade of the Cold War, Robison was asked to select a special collection of high-value works to be placed in a large-book-sized box that could easily be moved in the case of calamity. Since then the one box has grown to seven—four for European works and three for America—and every year Robison reviews what is placed inside the black, cloth-lined boxes forebodingly labeled "WW3."
In a few weeks, Robison will begin the process of reconsidering which of the 106,000 works in the collection will be condensed to a list of 74 lucky survivors. He’s been choosing the elite of our national treasures for 32 years over his tenure as curator of prints, watercolors, drawings, and rare illustrated books. Robison's privileged position to choose what works would survive a decimation of our nation’s capital and national collection stems from the fact that his area of purview is easily transportable: there is no such emergency box for the National Gallery’s collection of paintings and sculptures
The whereabouts of the storerooms holding the boxes are undisclosed, as are their emergency relocation site. In case Robison isn’t around during the potential catastrophe, museum security guards — and Nicholas Cage — have been entrusted with a floor plan divulging their exact location.
The task of reviewing what will go into the boxes is conducted annually by Robison and his team. The contents are ever changing — only 27 percent of the first box’s contents remain. For Robison, it is only women and children into the lifeboats. There are three criteria for making it into the box: aesthetic value, historical value, and a "va-va-voom" value he calls "power." So, which of our nation’s treasures will survive the apocalypse? A look under the lid reveals a preparatory sketch by Rubens, six woodcuts by Edvard Munch, Cellini’s "A Satyr," self-portraits by Rembrandt and Picasso, as well as watercolors by Winslow Homer and John Marin.
NGA director Rusty Powell claims the WW3-stenciled boxes aren’t the principal mode of protection for the museum’s collection — they may simply be the most outré example of national art security.