August 29, 2005

How safe is the universal museum?

Posted at 9:26 am in British Museum

The argument is often put forward that artefacts are safer in the British Museum than they would be in their countries of origin. This article looks at it from a different perspective though, where the larger a museum is, the more appeal it might have to terrorists as a relatively easy target – destroying parts of a culture. So are smaller regional museums or those for specific collections safer than the universal museum in today’s world?

The Boston Globe

Are museums safe from terrorism?
By Michael O’Hare | August 27, 2005
THE MUSEUM of Fine Arts is planning a $100 million expansion. Exciting, but all in all, maybe not such a good idea to further concentrate cultural treasures in one place.

Disagreeable as it is, let’s try to think like a terrorist, especially an Islamic terrorist, flying over Boston in a stolen corporate jet with a load of fuel, who wants to deliver it where it will create the most damage to the evil society below it.

Various skyscrapers are in view, in any of which you could kill a lot of people, probably hundreds, but you have to kill thousands to be in the big leagues now . . . say, what’s that building in the Fenway? It’s full of images, intrinsically forbidden, and a lot of those images are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, animist . . . a warehouse of infidel impiety. Not to mention unspeakable obscenity: nudity, sex, the lot.

Furthermore, these objects are unique. The library has the only copies of some books, but the information in most of them exists elsewhere; it’s very hard to kill a book. The art in a museum, in contrast, is irreplaceable and embodies the whole cultural history and tradition of the society you want to do your worst to: incinerate an ”Ascension” and it’s completely gone, forever. Oh yes; on a weekend day with a blockbuster exhibition underway, the museum will have a non-trivial number of visitors in it as well, which moves it up the target list from a church.

Unimaginable that anyone could be so savage as to blow up a museum? Ask the people at the Uffizi, and ask the Taliban who shelled the Buddhas, never mind the assaults on children, bystanders, and anyone else that have by now become banal. Islamic terrorists, organized and systematic or diffuse and unguided, have shown themselves to deserve our worst expectations. And don’t for a minute believe that the Islamic collections in museums that have them, like the MFA, are effective hostages against attack: Terrorists will destroy anything and kill anyone, on the basis of a theology or ideology unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The utilitarianism of terror operates, on the evidence of public statements and behavior, are at a level that will accept any cost to pursue an enormous nihilistic goal.

Art museums have be considered among the most attractive targets of destruction for any group that takes the time to think of what’s really precious to the culture and traditions of its enemy. It’s time to take this risk more seriously than backpack searches and wishful thinking. What can be done about this?

The most important thing we could be doing right away is to decentralize collections out of the most visible and important museums. Top-rank museums display as little as 10 percent of their holdings, so there’s no reason other than the convenience of the research staff to keep the other 90 percent in the basement or anywhere on the same premises. These study collections, at least, could be dispersed quickly to unobtrusive and safe offsite locations, some of them to out-of-town museums for whom they would be enormously valuable as display items, and with good effect on the risk.

We should also think longer term as a society about the benefit of keeping an amount of art that cannot possibly be seen in a single visit in a single building. It takes at least four days really to see the displayed MFA collection, and that would be a superficial overview in any case; why should anyone have to keep going back to the same building to do so? There may be some advantages in this concentration for security against risks like theft, but the real risk now is quite different, and the concentration of more and more great masterpieces in the same place is steadily raising the risk that we could lose a whole lot of it at one time, with very modest benefits to the art-viewing public.

The manifest psychology and stated motives of international terrorism, coupled with its demonstrated ability to deliver really big attacks in surprising ways, are an arrow aimed at museums, especially the biggest and most prestigious.

Continuing to care for our irreplaceable artistic patrimony in the same way that seemed to make sense before 9/11, including doing so with half-hearted measures like extra guards and searches, is not good trusteeship anymore.

Michael O’Hare is professor of public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

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