Monthly Archives: September 2013

Flash Burn Surprise

Thanks to Kim Looby, Intern at the Gaston County Museum, for this guest post. Museum Curator Stephanie Elliott attended C2C’s disaster planning & recovery workshop last week and the story she told us about the recent burn damage in her museum was so fascinating, we convinced her to get her staff to share it with our larger blog audience.

GastonCountyFireThis summer the museum had quite the scare.  A staff member had smelled smoke over the weekend and gone to investigate, but found nothing. On Monday when everyone returned, another staff member noticed two large burn holes in the carpet in our hands-on parlor. Everyone tossed out ideas about what could have caused it. Was someone smoking? Did something fall from the ceiling? This was all extremely distressing due to the fact that our museum is over 100 years old and made of wood. It would burn quite quickly. But it wasn’t a visitor, it was physics.

An intern recalled visiting a museum where they had a magnifying glass in a window in front of a wicker rocking chair. The sunlight coming in the window was concentrated through the magnifying glass and caught the wicker chair on fire and nearly burned down the museum. Then staff noticed that the bottom of the stool in front of the pump organ had ball and claw feet with glass balls. The stool feet lined up perfectly with the burn holes on the carpet. The stool, which is usually tucked under the organ, had apparently been left out in the middle of the carpet over the weekend. The windows in the parlor are well covered by an overhang, though, preventing most direct sunlight. The sun had to have passed at the right time of day, at the right position in the sky and with the stool at the right position on the floor to create a perfect scenario to burn the carpet.

To rectify the situation, we are going to employ the practice of Victorians and cover the stool legs with fabric so the legs are no longer “improper” and the glass balls are covered. The rug was a reproduction, which has since been tossed and replaced. The moral of the story is this: If you have anything with glass in front of a window, beware that if sunlight passes through it, you might have a disaster.


Locking Down Exhibit Thefts

Thanks to Mark Ross, Regional Physical Security Specialist for the National Park Service, for this guest post.

CapeFearMuseumStolenOn July 25, 2013 the Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina was a victim of theft. 5 Civil War-era objects were stolen from a display case, which according to reports, had a broken lock. The theft occurred during open hours and the on the morning of July 26th, museum officials discovered the following items missing (4 of which are shown above): a U.S. Army oval brass belt buckle with “US” embossed on the face, a Confederate infantry brass button with “I” on the face, a Confederate artillery brass button marked “A,” and two Confederate North Carolina brass buttons embossed with “NC” and a seven-point star-burst pattern.

Exhibit case thefts have been increasing in the last two years. Please be proactive in daily inspections to protect museum collections from these types of thefts. Collection items and artifacts that are housed in exhibit cases are vulnerable to theft in a number of different ways. One way is to remove the screws while no one is watching and remove the contents of the display case. Another method in which a thief will carry out a display case theft is to visit the museum several times and remove one screw at a time, and on the final trip the theft is carried out with ease. If no one is checking the cases each night and looking for missing screws, the thief will be successful on his final trip to the exhibit. Consider adding a daily check to your opening and closing procedures that involves:

  1. looking for signs of tampering of display cases
  2. examining locking devices to ensure they are in working order

Regular inspection is an additional protective measure that can be implemented without additional expense.

Below I have included several articles where museum objects were taken from their display cases by removal of the screws that hold the case together. This type of theft is quite common; I was able to find 15 articles related to theft where the screws were removed from display cases. I have included below the links to 3 of the articles.

  • At the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore a 1934 signed baseball disappeared from a case where screws had been removed. An Employee estimated it could have been missing for up to 2 weeks before he noticed its absence.
  • In Ogdensburg, New York a thief stole a valuable ring from the Remington Museum after removing case screws undetected. Despite the piece’s insurance value, staff had not photographed the ring, making its recovery more difficult.

[Editor’s note: The Cape Fear Museum had a complete inventory of its collections, which included photographs of the stolen items. These have been circulated to the police and to dealers in the region in the hopes that the artifacts may be identified and returned.] 

  • Over a 35-year period, a serial thief targeted small museums, mostly in Montana, with unsophisticated security measures and few staff on hand. At times he unscrewed cases to remove items he could stuff into his clothing before walking out.

The National Park Service has recommended that both the Park Physical Security Coordinator and Chief Curator get together and perform an audit of NPS exhibit cases and possibly institute additional protective measures such as changing the regular standard screws to security screws. Also if you have exhibit cases that have doors with hinges, you should ensure that they are hinged from the inside to prevent external access to the hinge screws or hinge pins. In 1995 NPS published a Conserve O Gram about display case security and the use of specialized security screws. This is a low-cost, easily obtainable measure that will lower the risk of theft of collection items via removal of screws.

Additional resources includeSuggested Practices for Museum Case Construction and Alarming Design,” which is a good guide to download and print out for your security library, especially if a Museum is planning on purchasing new display cases. Click here for another useful brief guideline on implementing exhibit security.

Should Museum Exhibits Be No Flash Zones?



A few weeks ago one of our past workshop participants sent email asking whether her all-volunteer historical association should allow flash photography in the museum and historic house buildings it operates. We advised that the most recent research indicates that flash photography does not pose a real preservation threat. Still, there are various institutional approaches to the issue of photography in exhibitions and reasons for limiting it.

Two NC Department of Cultural Resources museums’ policies diverge on the issue of flash photography. Here is the North Carolina Museum of History’s photography policy: “Still photography of the permanent collection is permitted on condition that the photographs are for personal, noncommercial use.Tripods and video cameras are prohibited without special, advance permissions. Commercial photography is not allowed, except with advance permission.” The North Carolina Museum of Art does not allow flash photography. “Still photography of the permanent collection, taken in existing light, is permitted on condition that the photographs are for personal, noncommercial use.”

These institutions agree on limiting commercial photography because it can infringe on the copyrights of the art or artifact’s creator. Rather than allow each photographer to assume risk, the museums require seeking prior permission.

Other online discussions cite additional reasons to limit photography in exhibit areas. The most popular of these is that visitors taking pictures impede the flow in crowded galleries and can disrupt the museum experience, especially when jarring flashes occur.

Another possible reason to limit photography is the belief that visitors will take photos instead of buying professional reproductions in a gift shop, consequently reducing the museum’s potential revenue. One online comment argued astutely that souvenir shopping and photographing objects in an exhibit are two separate impulses and that museums do not make most of their collection objects available in souvenir form in their shops anyway.

What do you think? Does your institution allow photography or limit it? How does its photography policy affect audience engagement?

A New Alliance

Most readers realize that AAM has changed its name from the American Association of Museums to the American Alliance of Museums. Along with the name change and new graphic design, AAM has promised changes for members, and several of these open access to the organization’s services. Here are some of the most important changes for small museums:

  • Institutional membership: There are now 3 levels of membership, with “Tier 1” incorporating a “pay what you can” philosophy. Upper levels of membership are either $125 or $150 for the smallest museums, so the Tier 1 option can make a significant difference.
  • Pledge of Excellence:  Member institutions can take this pledge and receive a certificate, as a public statement of the organization’s commitment to following professional standards. The pledge is a much more accessible option than accreditation, although pledging institutions include accredited museums. In North Carolina there are 22 accredited museums. An additional 11 institutions have taken the pledge. (To view list, click here and see pp. 40-42.)

MattEdwardsThe Mount Airy Museum of Regional History is one of the institutions that has taken AAM’s Pledge of Excellence but is a ways off from the accreditation process. Executive Director, Matt Edwards (left), was inspired to take the pledge while attending the Southeastern Museums Conference Jekyll Island Management Institute. “I fully believe in our responsibility to be the best museum we can be…I have a long-range plan for my institution that includes starting to pursue the accreditation process in the next 3-5 years, and [the pledge] publicly acknowledges that first step.”

  • Cooperation with StEPs program: The American Association of State and Local History’s Standards and Excellence Program for history organizations is a self-study designed to help small and mid-sized institutions achieve best practices incrementally.  Many of these smaller museums have not been eligible in the past for AAM accreditation, and while that achievement may still be a long way off, at least now a path is open. The work that institutions do toward StEPs will allow them to engage in a more streamlined approach for AAM’s MAP program as well as accreditation.

How does your institution navigate all the professional services available to it and decide which to work with (i.e. AAM, AASLH, SEMC, NCMC, C2C, NCPC, The Federation, etc.)? Do membership dues and program fees inhibit your organization’s participation? Will any of the above AAM changes make the services it offers more accessible for you?