By Michael Lynch
One of the most troubling news trends lately—to me, anyway—is the flurry of stories on thefts from museums and archives. The most notable of these is the case of Barry Landau, accused of stealing over 2,500 items from various institutions, but several smaller-scale incidents have also made headlines lately, such as the theft of weapons from a Revolutionary War museum.
Part of the problem is that historic manuscripts fetch astronomically high prices these days. In the mid- to late 1800’s the antiquarian and historian Lyman C. Draper was able to amass a huge collection of documentary material from the early frontier simply by asking around. Today many of the documents he solicited through the mail would bring thousands of dollars. In the past couple of years, documents signed or handwritten by Lincoln have sold for as much as $3.8 million.
As historic materials have become more valuable, the financial resources available to the museums and archives charged with securing them are diminishing. Public history institutions are struggling along with the rest of us, and slashed budgets result in a dearth of tools to keep tabs on collections and fewer personnel to keep a watchful eye on visitors and researchers. Institutions are thus faced with the burden of guarding more and more valuable material with fewer and fewer resources.
But even if the dollar values of historic materials plummeted and the budgets for institutions allowed administrators to create virtually impregnable security measures, some risk to the collections would remain, simply because the items which make up those collections are so compelling in and of themselves. The compulsion to steal documents and artifacts is perverse, but there is a sense in which it’s a warped manifestation of the same impulses which drive historians, curators, archivists, and legitimate collectors: We recognize that the past has a kind of transcendence which we can access vicariously through the raw materials of history.
That’s the reason for building museums and archives in the first place. These objects have an intrinsic value. My first foray into public history was the time I spent as an intern at LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. One day the curator told me to dismantle our ironclad exhibit and put the artifacts in storage. It was a surreal experience, cradling in my hands the signal lantern from the Monitor and the speaking trumpet that the vessel’s commanding officer used during the battle with the Virginia. Once I had them safely locked away, I got out my cell phone to call my mom and tell her, “I just handled the Monitor‘s signal lantern!”
Museums and archives have dual purposes which exist in tension with each other. They exist both to safeguard important materials and also to allow the public to access them. Every folder carried into a reading room and every artifact placed in a gallery is an act of calculated and managed risk. The risk must be taken if the institution is to fulfill its public obligations, but it must also be minimized to the greatest degree possible. Given the rising prices of original material, the declining budgets of tightly strapped museums and archives, and the remarkable audacity of the thieves who target them, this is a problem that won’t be going away soon.
—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.