Warning: Museum Content Ahead
Woman Selling Salop. William Henry Pyne. The Costume of Great Britain. 1805.
Night watchmen. We’ve been over them before, tangentially, but never in an experienced way. Sure, sleeping overnight at museum sites, I’ve encountered the night watchman making his rounds. And as a museum visitor, I’ve met the guards who monitor how I’m wearing my messenger bag, and how close I get to various works of art.
But what I don’t think about enough, and don’t observe being thought about, is the safety of people over objects. The Museum Security Network has posts on art theft, forgery, and vandalism— all of which are important topics– but there’s a clear focus. For years, decades, that was our focus at work: stuff, buildings, not people.
That changed in our Library five years ago with one obstreperous patron who touched–didn’t hurt, but was angry, and put a hand on– one of our librarians. Now we think about books, papers, and people. But it’s hard: for as long as I’ve worked in this field, and it’s fully half my life, I’ve had the mission drummed into me: access. We preserve these materials, these objects, these sites, for the use and enjoyment of the public, and that means everyone.
The radical democracy of object care (everything we own is preserved with the best care we can provide, from 17th century basket to 21st century advertising hard hat) translated for me into the radical democracy of access: everyone gets in. (It helps that I’ve worked at places where we could provide a lot of free access, and where we continue to strive for as much free access as possible.)
Hades atop the front gate pillar
Everyone gets in. Everyone can appreciate our shared cultural heritage. And then I met Mr Hades. That’s not his real name, but the young man who has been visiting us at the museum (after coming to the library last summer in a quieter mode) has developed an obsession with Hades. He came in Thursday, asking about the front gates, about Hades being the god of Hell, and whether the gates of hell were in our basement. I’ve heard a lot of myths about our basement, but not that one. After ten minutes, and before we could connect to 911, Mr Hades left.
But he was back yesterday, more erratic than before, sunglasses hiding his wide and striking pale green eyes, ranging through the house from front to back streaming a rap song on his phone. He paid for the tour, but left after 10 minutes in the house. He’s clearly been on a tour before.
So we met two police officers from the local substation, and we know to call them immediately if Mr Hades returns. A little research (that’s what we do) turned up a lot of interesting information about Mr Hades, and we suspect that there are officers and judges and guards who are pretty familiar with him, and that he needs help as much or more than he needs incarceration. But he disturbs our visitors, and agitates the staff, and that’s a bad visitor experience. (Thanks to my anti-anxiety meds, I don’t get anxious; I just get a stomach ache and keep talking with Mr Hades to try to keep him focused.)
But last night, talking about safety and Mr Hades with Drunk Tailor, I realized that we don’t think enough about the security of our staff. We put our visitors and our objects before the staff, and that’s not right. This incident made me put the safety of our staff above that of the objects, but we can’t help our visitors be safe unless we take care of ourselves.
If your staff members know their routines, know how to respond and have the tools they need to respond, they’ll be better able to care for and direct visitors to safety. I know we have to shift our thinking and procedures where I am; chances are your procedures are up for their annual review, too. For many of us, the new fiscal year has just begun. What better time for review and changes?