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.

Let’s Go to Gaol: Prison History, Prison Museums, and Why They Matter

Lincoln Entrance
Front view of the Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle

Dan Johnson is a PhD researcher in the Department of History at the University of York. His research focusses on public understandings of British penal history in museums.

Prisons are a major part of society, yet most of society have never seen one. We are taught that if we break the law, we go to jail. Our society depends on law and order, and if you break the law, you could be punished with by spending time in jail or prison. Crime and punishment is featured prominently on television in series such as Orange is the New Black, Prison Break, and Porridge; as well in movies including The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and even Toy Story 3. Crime and punishment have always been popular in literature, the news, and other media outlets as well. Generally speaking, the way that a large portion of society views the prison is through the media. Our views of criminals are often glorified as either the violent criminal, or the mistakenly convicted. Guards are often portrayed as racist, corrupt, cruel, or inept. How did these views come to be? Are these stereotypes used purely for entertainment, or are they rooted in historical fact? How did our society come to view prisons these ways and how did they come to function the way that they do? Through the interpretation of prison history in museums, visitors may find answers to some of these questions.

Prison museums have become popular tourist attractions all over the world in the last few decades. Some of the most popular prison museums in the world are Alcatraz in California, Robben Island in South Africa, and Melbourne Gaol in Australia. These museums, and the hundreds of other prison museums around the world, all attempt to give an historical interpretation of the prison to help visitors to construct a more realistic view of penal history and how prisons work today. In order to form a better understanding of how prisons work today, it is important to understand the history of the prison. Prisons became the main form of punishment in the first half of the nineteenth century. Prior to that, the Bloody Code made over 200 criminal offences punishable by death. Those that were not hanged for their crimes were often transported to North America. Following the American War of Independence, prisoners were transported to Australia from 1788 until 1868. The Bloody Code was repealed with the 1823 Judgement of Death Act that made the death penalty discretionary for all crimes except murder and treason. The loss of the ability to hang or transport convicts to America lead to the necessity to develop a more expansive prison system. A number of prison reform acts from the 1830s-70s saw the development of a two-fold penal system consisting of local prisons and gaols (jails) for minor offences, and national penitentiaries starting with Millbank and Pentonville Prisons. These national penitentiaries were the birth of modern prisons in Britain.

Through the restructuring of the punishment system in the UK, the role of prisons has also changed. Originally, prisons were a place of punishment for prisoners once convicted. Ideas of punishment evolved from physical such as whippings, to mental, such as solitary confinement. Eventually, the role of prisons shifted from places of physical punishment to places of reflection and moral rehabilitation. This shift saw the introduction of the separate and silent systems. Both were forms of solitary confinement where prisoners had little interaction with each other and forced them to reflect on their actions and hopefully they would repent their sins and become rehabilitated. Today, prison is no longer a place where convicts go to receive punishment, but their sentence is their punishment. In order to help prisoners reintegrate, many prisons offer education and various trade courses to help them to have the opportunity of a productive life after incarceration.

Understanding prison history is important for society because it helps people to make sense of the system that we live in today. The average prisoner has never been a murderer, yet that is how we see them on TV and in the news. Prison museums allow visitors to enter historic prisons, see how past prisoners lived, and sometimes see how prisons look and function today. They give people the opportunity to learn about the penal system and why the prison populations, along with stereotypes look the way that they do. In the USA, Eastern State Penitentiary museum brings current prison issues into the public eye, including a new exhibition on mass incarceration. One of the best prison museums in the UK is located at the Victorian Prison in Lincoln Castle. At this museum, visitors step into a day in the life of Victorian prisoners in 1848. The museum explains that most criminals were not murderers or violent criminals, but were the unfortunate by-product of a class system that meant some were very wealthy and others were very poor. Most crime in Victorian rural Lincolnshire were convicted of theft, larceny, poaching, and pickpocketing because they simply needed to feed their families. Another top prison museum, the Nottingham Galleries of justice, houses and displays the HM Prison Service Collection that shows how the prison system has evolved over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Each prison museum shares a unique perspective on the history of criminal justice and provides visitors with a narrative rooted in history that they can compare to their previous assumptions and stereotypes perpetuated by the media and news outlets. Prison museums are special because they have the opportunity to provide visitors with a different view of the largely unknown, yet oddly familiar prison. It’s an opportunity to separate fact from fiction in an institution that is a large and important part of society. How different are prison museums from the popular culture? Visit one and see for yourself.

Shaping the Body: A Conversation

photo 1 (11)

“Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder” is a quote that has been frequently drawn upon in recent times to counter the apparent bombardment of media imagery and dialogue which promotes the idea of the “perfect body”. In our current society, it would seem that social media and television maintain that our bodies ought to look thin, toned, athletic and hairless in order to be perceived as beautiful and healthy. Some have attacked the media with a backlash to highlight the unrealistic expectations placed upon our bodies. Yet, is this public war surrounding body shape and beauty, with the associated implications surrounding our health, really a new phenomenon which has stemmed from our mass media age?

This question, alongside the themes of nutrition and diet will form part of an upcoming event titled Shaping the Body: A Conversation, to be held at the York Castle Museum on June 9th 2016. Following on from last year’s successful event organised by the York Castle Museum and the University of York’s Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, the museum is hosting an interactive discussion aimed at the public. Last year’s event saw a group of historians, curators and ex-military personnel discuss a wide range of themes relating to the First World War. It included some challenging questions and made the audience think about how war is commemorated and remembered. Building on the success of that event, the York Castle Museum has decided to hold a similar discussion this year. The event will consist of a tour of the York Castle Museum’s new exhibition (titled Shaping the Body), followed by a panel discussion in the museum space with curators, fashion experts, medical professionals and academics working in the fields of body image and health. Audience members will be encouraged to ask questions and participate in this informal and interactive discussion. It is aimed to enhance the themes of the exhibition and to generate broader debate surrounding body image, lifestyle and nutrition throughout 500 years of history to the present day. It will explore the ways in which society has shaped the expectations of body image across the years and compare historical issues surrounding nutrition and health with the modern day concerns.

There are several benefits to organising an event such as this for the public to enjoy. Firstly, it will enable visitors to take an active part in learning more about the broader themes explored in Shaping the Body. The event will encourage audience participation through voting activities, asking questions and adding comments about the topics raised by the panel members.

Secondly, this event gives the general public a chance to go behind the scenes and learn about the curatorial decisions made in the planning of the exhibits. Curators of the exhibition will be present and will be able to elaborate on the choices they made when forming the exhibition. Visitors will also get the chance to ask curators and organisers of the event questions as they gain an exclusive tour of the exhibition before the panel discussion.

Finally, by organising a panel team to generate debate, the audience will be able to hear other interpretations surrounding the very topical issues relating to body image and to the changes in the human body over time. IPUP have enlisted the expertise of York Castle Museum curators, psychologists, medical experts and fashion historians to start the conversation and bring to life the ideas generated by the York Castle Museum exhibition space.

Meet the panel:

Beth Bell – Psychologist, York St John University

Beth Bell is a Senior Lecturer in Psycology at York St John University. Her research explores how young people react to technology and the media in relation to their body image and eating behaviour. Dr Bell’s knowledge will enable her to provide a contemporary perspective to the issues raised in the exhibition.

Alex Bowmer – Medic and Historian, King’s College London

Alex is a CDA PhD candidate at King’s College London and the University of Reading. His PhD focuses upon grass root conceptualisations of Epizootic and Zoonotic disease transmission in 20th century Britain, to establish how the public reacted, responded and understood disease transmission. As well as having a BA and MA in Modern History, he is also a qualified Intervention Healthcare Consultant. Alex has worked for over 6 years in pharmaceutical, emergency, psychological and sports medicine. He hopes to provide both past and contemporary understandings of body image, nutrition and health.

Glen Jankowski  – Psychologist, Leeds Beckett University

Glen’s research is primarily on men’s body image. He argues that men develop body dissatisfaction because businesses increasingly sell appearance insecurity in order to gain profits. He has published in the following journals: the Journal of Health Psychology, Psychology of Men and Masculinity and Body Image.

Sue Vincent – Cultural Historian, University of York

Susan Vincent is a Research Associate at the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies (CREMS) at the University of York. While working primarily on the cultural history of dress in the early modern period, she has expanded her research interests to include dress practices up to the present day. Her publications include Dressing the Elite: Clothes in Early Modern England and The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today, as well as shorter studies that range from acquiring clothes in the sixteenth century through to practices of glove-wearing in the twentieth. She is also general editor of the six-volume Cultural History of Fashion and Dress forthcoming from Bloomsbury later in the year.


With such a diverse panel team, the audience will be able to explore some of the complex issues which emerge from the exhibition surrounding contemporary and historical attitudes towards the human body.

If you would like to attend this unique and exciting event please click here to be directed to the Eventbrite page.

Tickets cost £5 (price includes an exclusive tour of the exhibition and access to the panel discussion held in the exhibition space).