About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The following was gleaned from a January discussion on the FS-LIST listserv for field service workers:

The theft of collections is an issue for many local historical organizations. There are other security risks that can be addressed in a more formal risk assessment from a variety of local resources. However, here are some considerations that may reduce your risk of loss:

1)    You can’t stop a determined thief, so most measures really only serve to keep the honest people honest. Due diligence is to be expected in the matter of security.

2)    The institution has an obligation to consider security: both to ensure that future generations have access to history, and to ensure that volunteers, staff, and visitors all have a safe experience.

3)    Think about the collections as two groups: those that are truly irreplaceable with great associated stories and those things that are simply old without much provenance. Expend more energy on the security of the truly irreplaceable.

4)    Eight Low-Tech, Mostly Low-Cost, Anti-Theft Security Strategies:

a)    Two or More: have two or more people working/volunteering at the same time to provide a support network.

b)    Symbols of authority: for volunteers and staff onsite, wear a uniform item (like a polo shirt, jacket, ball cap, etc.) with other visible symbols (like a badge, key on a lanyard, a walkie-talkie on a belt, etc.) Honest people have respect for authority, and an authority figure nearby will inspire continued honesty and a sense of safety (i.e., the visitor knows who to contact/trust if something happens). All who work onsite should have training in what to do, and where to go for help.

c)    Intuition: look all of your visitors in the eye, befriend them, and observe body language. Not only is it polite to ask people about themselves, where they come from, and how they heard of your museum, all of these things are clues should something happen (not to mention this should help with the museum’s marketing plan, too). If you are uncomfortable, there’s probably a reason. Don’t panic, but do keep an eye on the situation and know where the nearest help is.

d)    Positive message: educate visitors on why security is in place, should they ask, without leveling accusation or giving away your security secrets. Basic goal here is to inspire confidence in the visitor that the facility says safety for collections and people is Job #1.

e)     Amenities: have a designated secure place for coats and bags, and insist your visitors make use of this amenity.

f)     Exhibit furniture: Small things that fit in pockets should not be left out in the open. Using platforms, reading rails, and other exhibit furniture can often be used to deter the otherwise honest because they create boundaries.

g)    Lighting: motion activated switches in exhibit galleries not only save energy and prolong the life of objects, they also give a sense to people that their movements are noted. Spotlights also create a sense of boundaries. Grants are often available to improve lighting, such as from power companies.

h)    Décor: nicer finishes in truly public areas should contrast with more utilitarian finishes in nonpublic areas. When someone inadvertently wanders into a secure area, the décor will cause a certain level of self-consciousness in honest people.

5)    Think about a response protocols: which law enforcement agency will you call and what is their number? List out everything that should be done when a security risk arises, who should do that task, and how to document the event.

6)    Never go it alone when a situation arises: call for help.

7)    Never admit fault when the event happens: hindsight will help determine what went wrong.

8)    If something is stolen, file a police report. While this may seem like bad press, without a report, securing the return of the item becomes more difficult should it surface. And, by filing a report the institution demonstrates to the public that it takes its responsibility for collections seriously, and therefore potential donations should also be safe.

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4 Responses to Theft Prevention for the Small History Museum

  1. Michael Norman says:

    As a frequent visitor to and researcher in local historical societies, I’ve seen in some locations one small addition that strikes me as quite useful — a buzzer or bell that sounds when the museum’s or organization’s front door is opened, especially if the main office is not within direct line of sight to that door or if the volunteer(s) on duty is/are tied up elsewhere.
    Also, “dummy” video cameras or simply old ones had for next to nothing can be mounted in a few places. The potential thief doesn’t know if they’re real or not and might not want to risk lifting something if they think they’re being monitored. And honest people won’t be bothered by their presence. Like the old “Beware of Dog” sign in the yard when all you have in the dog house is a sleepy dachsund.


  2. I think that nothing can replace the interaction between visitors and staff when someone comes in. If the visitors knows that staff are around, and paying attention, they will be less likely to pick something up. More professional thieves rely upon bad sightlines and inattentive staff to carry out their work. If you cannot see everything on display when visitors are in your gallery spaces, then someone needs to walk around on an irregular schedule.


    Diane Adams-Graf reply on March 10th, 2010:

    Ten years ago, but some timely comments remain in the Tech Talk article we wrote on security, Claudia. I can’t believe it’s been ten years!


  3. Genia Hesser says:

    In addition to the practical and common sense approaches listed above, I’ll add another that we employ at our musuem: namely, multiple levels of security. This makes it more difficult to get to a particular item and requires more time of the thief, which both acts as a deterrent and might allow staff to intercept the thief. Using a civil war era rifle as an example: the mounts that support the rifle also encircle the barrel so that the gun is attached the case base; the gun is under a solid plexiglass cube (which is difficult to shatter, unlike glass), and this cube is secured to the large case base by security screws. Regular screwdrivers are ubiquitous, but button-head or snake-eye drivers aren’t likely to be carried by “crime of opportunity” thief. This display is also well-lighted and placed in a well-traveled part of the museum so other visitors are also likely around. The case is also of a size that it would akward and difficult for one person to carry it off. Each of these actions decreased the possibility that the gun will be stolen.


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