SECURITY For Museums

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This is the second in a series on museum management

Museum security covers a multitude of subjects, and when one is overlooked it can cause a lot of grief. Some museums have found that their trust is often violated, and damaging losses result.

We have talked to museum people who learned the hard way. Sad to say, it is often true that what is not under lock and key, or so fastened down that it cannot be moved, or not watched when crowds are present, will 'walk away'.

But that is not all which can be filed under the heading of security. It includes record-keeping, and seeing that those records are in safe places and not easily removed; holding down the number of keys for important locks; and crowd control whether it be while moving through the museum or outdoors where engines are in motion.

Paula Schwartz, curator-director of the Delaware Agricultural Museum (at Dover, Del.), says security is the institution's biggest problem. The museum is only five years old, and its exhibits of engines are in the early stages, with most on loan.

'We keep telling people not to touch the engines,' she says. 'We have to see that they do not take anything off the gas engines, and we have to keep them off the big steam engines.'

In this day of what has been called 'the litigious society' with too many people ready to sue at the drop of a hat, protecting them is ever more important and that protection is thereby extended to the organization and its museum.

'Our only means of security now is a rope around the exhibits,' Paula comments. 'When crowds push through an area this is not always a satisfactory deterrent to touching and climbing.'

The Delaware museum is cognizant of a type of crime that is increasingly prevalent the removal of small parts by people who 'need' the parts for their own engines. Sometimes the thefts are not based on need the pieces are taken just because they are there, and no one is watching.

For large events, such as engine shows, Ms. Schwartz says that collectors who volunteer to help are assigned the role of keeping an eye on the crowds and the exhibits, so that no pilfering occurs.

Museums with large collections have come to the point at which they pay fulltime security guards to patrol their grounds around the clock to prevent intruders from walking off with whole engines, or other valuable items.

In some cases, the guards are not members of the clubs. In others, they may stay in mobile homes or cottages on the grounds, as members who thus trade a place to stay for the service of protection.

Another aspect of security is crowd control either within museum buildings or on the grounds.

John Adams, security officer at the Pennsylvania State Railroad Museum at Strasburg, called our attention to one type of visiting group that calls for special attention. This is the class of schoolchildren on a field trip. The care is required not because of theft potential, but because of possible unruly behavior.

'It depends on the locality from which they come,' Adams notes. 'Some are quiet and attentive; others not. Excitement may cause some to misbehave, and some may be on the trip because they'd rather be out of school than in it.'

The rail museum stands less chance of thefts of parts, he feels, because the engines and cars are so large and therefore not available from ground level. Only one engine has a built-up walkway.

Adams adds that some museums face not only theft but also damage to engines or parts.

Photography can aid in keeping an inventory and expanding security. If you take an instant photo of an engine, it can be kept on file. Insurance firms recommend this for personal possessions, and it can apply to museum artifacts as well.

Handling of crowds outdoors, when engines are in motion, comes under heading of security also. Keep audience away from moving engines. Make sure your insurance covers you on public liability; even if someone is injured through his or her own negligence, there may be a suit that takes long to resolve.

The Smithsonian Institution opened a series of museum workshops at Washington in July. One on security is due Nov. 12-15. Fee is $75 per workshop. Applicants must meet certain requirements. To inquire, write to Workshop Series, Office of Museum Programs, Arts & Industries Bldg., Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560.