Museum Monday: User Theft of Collections

Yesterday, The Baltimore Sun reported that Jason James Savedoff was sentenced to one year in prison for his supporting role in the theft of over sixty documents from the Maryland Historical Society. The man who convinced him to do it, collector Barry H. Landau, was discovered hoarding 10,000 documents in his Manhattan apartment, over 60% which were suspected stolen. The National Archives and Records Administration is now assisting in the return of those documents. Landau was convicted in February (read it in The Sun here).

See a brilliant little clip from a Maryland Historical Society press conference in which library staff note how they became suspicious of Landau and Savedoff, upped their monitoring of the pair, and gained visual confirmation of the theft here. Three cheers for vigilant museum staff.

Episodes such as this trouble me deeply. As a collection manager by profession, I daily walk the line for both collections and our researchers, a mantra of “preservation and access.” The idea is that if you don’t preserve collections, that part of our cultural heritage is lost and nobody can benefit from them. If you preserve collections but don’t let researchers use them, then what is the point of preserving them? As both a museum professional and a researcher, I experience both sides of the coin. It isn’t always comfortable visiting fellow institutions and learning yet another set of visiting room rules. You have to put your coat and bags here, fill out these forms, state the nature of your research, make sure this copyright notice appears in all photos, you can request so many documents at a time, use only pencil, there’s a limit on the number of photographs, museum staff will examine your belongings upon your departure, etc. But I know that each one of these rules is important to the mitigation of risk to collections. I saw that Landau and Savedoff often plied museum staff with cupcakes and cookies as one of their methods of distraction. Where was the no food/no drink in the research room rule?

When you finally clear the hurdles (always administered by friendly archives staff, who I find are some of the most patient people on earth), you sit and you wait for your requested documents to arrive. For a researcher, that moment when the cart rolls up to you and into your hands come indentures, court records, photographs, wills, 18th century newspapers, and so forth, you count yourself among the very fortunate. Most researchers (and some thieves, certainly) are fueled by passion for their subject, rather than greed and a callous disregard for our nation’s joint ownership of history.

Museums want their collections to be used and written about. But scum like Landau and Savedoff ruin it for everybody when they steal documents. It requires museums to place more restrictions around access in order to preserve their collections. Heritage thieves cause us all to lose.