People Pose Preservation Dangers
Theft is the most obvious danger to artifact preservation that people pose. As we’ve discussed previously in this blog, museum staff, volunteers, and researchers comprise an amazingly high percentage of museum thefts (approximately 90%). But mishandling can also damage artifacts, and probably a similarly high percentage of the most egregious examples can also be considered insider jobs. Now, most of us who work with collections take our ethical responsibilities seriously and are scrupulous about honesty and proper stewardship. The vast majority of professionals provide care that is in line with current conservation guidelines, in so far as training and budgets allow. Exceptional cases of mishandling, however, can be instructive, and breaking news provides two interesting examples:
- Recently, a Miami artist intentionally lifted a Chinese artist’s vase from an exhibit at an art museum in that city and dropped it on the floor, shattering the piece. He committed the destructive act in protest of the museum’s practice of only displaying international art.
- Earlier this month, a French museum employee sat on a red leather folding chair that had belonged to Napoleon and broke it.
In addition to such stories that generate media attention, many of us who have been in the museum field for awhile have heard legends and rumors about staff members taking advantage of their access to collections in ways that could damage the artifacts. For instance:
- True story: graduate students in a program at a much-venerated East coast museum spied a museum historian and registrar embracing after hours on an 18th-century 4-poster bed sometime in the late 1960s. Since both staff members proceeded to have long careers there, and grad students kept coming, the story continued to be passed along for at least 30 years.
- Rumor: a rather large male costume and textile curator tried on women’s undergarments from the collection while working late.
These colorful examples of mishandling remind us that human nature is imperfect; that familiarity breeds complacency; and that accountability helps us all do the best job we can. Another reminder is that no matter what protections we put in place to keep artifacts safe, someone (out of thousands or more?) may put his own personal agenda above the responsibility to protect the artifact for perpetuity.
What can we do to protect collections from insiders who may believe themselves to be exempt from usual handling limitations? One answer is to require collections work to be on a buddy system, although that guideline clearly would not have prevented the 4-poster bed scenario. In addition to being an added security measure, the buddy system has practical benefits by ensuring more man and woman power when oversize objects and large boxes may need relocation. Another answer may be to limit after-hours work in collections storage. What works at your institution? Have you tried security cameras as a solution? Or has the honor system been enough protection so far?