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.

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This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on September 17, 2013, in collections access, Exhibitions, guest bloggers, museums and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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