Thursday, 15 January 2015




Editor's Note: MD Salzberg and Annissa Malvoisin are both first year MMst students who took Cara Krmpotich's MSL2370H Museums and Cultural Heritage I: Context and Critical Issues in the Fall 2014 semester. For their final papers, Salzberg wrote about theft in museums and Malvoisin wrote about theft in an archaeological context. This post aims to provoke conversation about theft and museums by providing two different contexts and research perspective. If you are a Museum Studies student engaged in research for a work, volunteer, or school project that you would like to share, please contact Robin Nelson.



We can all safely agree that stealing from Museums, libraries and archives, is wrong. We as cultural institutions do all that our budgets allow to prevent outsiders from "stealing our stuff," but we don't hold ourselves as museum professionals to the same standard. At its most basic, internal theft is an abuse of one's authority, wherein a member of the institution's family - be it staff, board, or volunteer - takes advantage of their position to steal. For this reason, internal theft is far more common than external theft. The notorious theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) in 1990 is not what cultural heritage theft looks like.

Libraries and archives are leading the charge to curb internal theft by having an open conversation about the problem. Museums on the other hand, are not as open about internal theft, to this author's knowledge there has only been one professional conversation about the problem.

In fact museums don't readily acknowledge any kind of theft, regardless of who is doing the stealing. It seems as though museums are too scared of losing the public's trust to acknowledge when they have been the victims of a crime. While museums should have a healthy respect for the public's trust, this fear is extreme.

If someone breaks into your home, you are upset that you have been the victim of theft and report it to the authorities. So why is it museums do not see themselves as victims when a theft has occurred and report it to the authorities?

The ISGM has not shied away from the theft and openly displays the empty frames of some of the stolen paintings.
The robbery at the ISGM is one of largest thefts in American history and the public was outraged. They were outraged at the thieves who committed the crime, not the security guards who let the thieves in the building. In the 25 years since the break in ISGM has thrived financially and its collection has grown. Clearly they were not 'punished' for failing the public.

The public's outrage is not reserved for external thieves but internal ones as well. Such as when Denning Mctague, former intern, was arrested for stealing documents from the United States National Archives and Records Administration, everyone from the assistant attorney general who prosecuted the case to the judge who did the sentencing considered it to be a crime against America.

It should be noted that in the US, stealing from a museum is a federal offense. Clearly, the public takes internal and external theft seriously, so why don't we?

We secure the front of house but what do we do, back of house? In the course of my research I have found that victims of internal theft have a few things in common.
  • Not tracking object locations
    • If you don’t regularly update the records when an object has been moved, it is difficult to prove that a theft has occurred.
  • Not changing the locks and alarm codes after staff turnover
    • Anyone can make a copy of a key or fail to forget an alarm code.
  • Not acting when theft is suspected
    • Usually, this is out of fear of causing offence.
  • Not realizing that if some one steals from you once and gets away with it they will continue until they are caught
This is not to suggest that museums should not trust anyone but we should use a little more caution.



Entrance to the Royal Tomb at Amarna. Tomb robberies were one of the most common cases of theft at the site. The Armana Project, 1978.
During my undergraduate studies, my interest in the study of archaeological artifacts as vehicles of further understanding past civilizations was heightened through the Egyptian archaeological site of Amarna. Through the study of artifacts from the Amarna period, I became very interested in the complexity of the society that inhabited it. Because it was never resettled after its abandonment in the late 18th dynasty, there still exists a large amount of artifacts scattered underneath the very well preserved site. I believe that archaeological objects, especially ceramics, help convey the cultural histories and artistic trends throughout a certain society’s life. Not only do they do this, but in the Egyptian context, they also display the greatness that is ancient Egyptian artistic innovation (which also encompasses their religion!). Unfortunately, although Amarna is not one of the most prominent victims of looting in Egypt, it is an example of repeated theft of archaeological evidence since the late 1200 B.C.

Though not directly located at the site, Amarna artifacts are still victims of theft. Selected artifacts excavated at Amarna were placed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and during the country’s 2011 revolution, the Museum was also looted. Many of the Amarna objects have not been recovered. Museum partnerships with other museums and source communities with the aim of preserving Egyptian sites that are consistently subject to archaeological theft is one way that has incrementally been put into use in order to decrease looting. The Petrie Museum has been an actor in aiding with the preservation of archaeological evidence through partnerships with Egyptian universities and their collections. Professor Barry Kemp’s involvement has also been vital in the preservation of Egyptian cultural and funerary objects, especially at the site of Amarna. I believe that the study of these artifacts through these partnerships are important in understanding the culture that created them, which is lost when they are stolen.

The next project for Amarna is the construction underway for the Amarna Site Museum and Visitor Centre which will be located on the site. However, will this museum provoke more theft as already excavated artifacts will be grouped together in one place? Or will it decrease theft because of increased security around the future museum and archaeological site?

I am obsessed with Amarna, and if I have persuaded you in becoming obsessed too since reading this post, take a look at Professor Barry Kemp’s Amarna Project website to learn more on past and current excavation and archaeological artifact preservation at the site. To learn more about Egyptian archaeological objects that have been stolen, check out ICOM’s redlist.

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