SECURITY For Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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