‘May I Help You, Sir?!’
By Richard Carreño
Museum security is a necessary evil.
True, much of it — at the public level, at least, like shoe removal at airports — is just security theatre. How much do public security measures, bag inspection, the watchful eyes of guards, the hidden ‘eyes’ of CCTV, and the like thwart the bad guys is hard to say. And like the tight-lipped airport personnel of the Transportation Security Administration, those who really know about the inner-workings of a particular museum’s security aren’t saying much.
What is certain, invasive protective measures are here to stay. In other words, get used to it.
Or, do we? My recent visit to the expanded Jewish Museum, newly opened on Independence Mall, was an eye-opener — and jaw-dropper. Never mind the airport-like baggage scanners. What I’m figuring is that guard with an automatic rifle, bullet-proof vest, and military fatigues isn’t going to give visitors from Peoria the warm fuzzies this summer when Philly’s tourist season gets into high gear.
What we also don’t have to get used to is capricious, arbitrary, and, even, mean-spirited security. Something akin to TSA bullying. Worse, the ‘up against the wall’ approach of some big-city cops.
It’s not that I’m not unfamiliar with the security hysteria that professionals in the field share about backpacks, rucksacks, bookbags, well, anything that’s strapped to your torso. (In Venice a while back, I had to stuff my bag in a companion’s handbag before entering the Basilica on San Marco Square. Of course, the putative bomb I might have had in my bag would just have been transferred to her bag. Never mind).
A more recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago turned up no surprises. Backpack phobia was in full swing.Banned, banished, prohibited, outlawed, shunned, and, for good measure, Verboten.
Some security personnel seem to believe that backpacks are the hand-held carriers of choice for suicide bombers and other lunatics who, er, go to museums. With the horrible exception of the shooter at the Holocaust Museum in Washington a few years ago, I can’t recall a single incident of public violence at any major American museum in recent years. Theft, yes. Vandalism, sure. But museum-goers by and large — and we’re talking about millions who patronise museums annually –hardly meet any profile for personal violence, or much less for bombing.
Foreign terrorists, then? Sorry, fine arts museums also don’t meet the right profile. No wings.
People, puleeze, some common sense.
My backpack is a small, lightweight black nylon job about the size of small plastic grocery bag. (I carry my ‘tools’ within, pads, pens, research materials, camera, and the like).
Soon after entering the Art Institute, I sensed that a ‘May-I-Help-You-Sir?!’ moment was quickly about to be in the offing.
I was lucky. ‘You must check that bag, sir!’ was a lower-level variant. The order, from a stern-looking security officer, was in robotic voice that’s now the lingua franca of the TSA and others in the growing rent-a-cop security busyness. The ominous tone is always a breath away from the truly menacing ‘May I help you, Sir?!’ That being, of course, a prelude to a Red-Alert Situation, leading ultimately, to handcuffing and arrest.
I suppose I learned my lesson. Instead of stuffing my bag, as I had at the Basilica in Venice in my companion’s handbag (this time, by the way, hers was the size of a small duffel bag), I meekly checked my bag with the proper authorities. (Everything else, I transferred to my companion’s duffel).
Well, that was that. Or was it?
Most of us, of course, face security issues — at work, during travel — almost every day. We have a stake in the process. As I write frequently about museums and their caches, I have a singular interest in museum security. Almost all, undertake some public display of security — not to catch the odd thief — but rather to declare the institution’s dedication to deterrence.
Most of this visible, obvious security — at museums, as is the case at airports — is a feel-good sham. Out of 10,000 persons, there’s the odd knucklehead with a penknife. As for the real bad guys, do you think they’re still carrying their plastique in shoe heels?
Some museums get it right. Smart museums like the Corcoran in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia and many, many others bow to the need for a public display of alleged security by visually inspecting all bags. This upfront eye-balling is done by the museum’s rent-a-cop staff. The pros are in the back of the shop.
Maybe, it’s just a Chicago thing, this undue emphasis on backpack security, I thought. After my visit to the Art Institute, I made my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art, where I also read that backpacks were not welcome in galleries. Really? Nah. Not a problem, I was told as I was ushered into the museum with my backpack slung over a shoulder. (That’s the same procedure, by the way, that I follow at the PMA and the Met).
The Art Institute, one of the country’s great museums, needs to lighten up. So does the Jewish Museum in Philly.