Security in Museums, Libraries and Archives

Image from Night at the Museum (2006)

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous. 

On a recent visit to the National Archives, I accidentally smuggled an eraser into the reading room. My clear plastic bag had been searched on the way in and I had been waved through. Not the end of the world. I’m not the kind of person who wants to rub out some of the national history, or deface a part of the UK’s heritage. Still, it got me thinking about how secure the repositories of the nation’s treasures are.

On visiting a museum to kill some time before a train, I was called across for a bag search. The steward had a look in my densely packed backpack and handbag and asked me what a few things were, what was in the carrier bag and so on, and trusted my responses. Obviously I’m far from alone in finding this process odd. An article in the Guardian from this time last year criticised the searches ‘discriminatory’ and ‘ineffectual’, but noted at least the Kensington Museums search everyone. This summer, that appears to no longer be entirely true. At some, the longer the queue and crowded the Museum, the less likely I am to be bag searched, perhaps in contrast to the proportional danger faced. While the Guardian is concerned with terrorism, the matter of artefact security is also an issue. The ‘search’ may only be the question of ‘do you have anything sharp?’ and if I was a vandal who wanted to cause some damage, I would say ‘no’ and be allowed to carry on.

What is this security meant to achieve? Anyone familiar with it is unlikely to see it as a deterrent to bringing prohibited items into a Museum, and those who accidentally bring prohibited items with them are unlikely to be the ones a Museum should worry about being in possession of such things.

Furthermore, cases of people damaging objects without the help of implements are perhaps more prevalent reason for concern. While the move away from glass cases and barriers in Museums is an important part of making them more universally engaging places, it also makes artefacts vulnerable. A couple of years ago I witnessed a child playing on a piece of [what I think was] art in a modern art museum, and stories of objects being broken, wilfully or more likely otherwise, are not uncommon. People are liabilities, but thankfully ones which can be mitigated against. If, as the Guardian suggests, current procedures for security in museums are a ‘farce’, perhaps it’s time for a rethink and a reallocation of resources. Greater warder presence in galleries may be more effective for all-round security than the current system of half-hearted bag searches. This may be particularly true when museums are at their busiest, when bag searches are briefest, and galleries most crowded.

I have been at the Science Museum during an evacuation, and it was calmly and swiftly enacted. There is no reason to suggest overall security procedures are weak. But there is the feeling that the current, token bag searches are a waste of time and money which allow museums to be seen to be doing something, while acting as little more than a placebo for providing a sense of security. This is surely unnecessary and wasteful, given that the more robust security procedures to protect against sinister threats no doubt are managed behind the scenes. Brains cleverer and more experienced than mine could come up with better ways to improve security for both artefacts and people, but there seems to be an opportunity here to put these resources to good use, namely protecting the nation’s collections from ourselves.

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