Monday, July 26, 2010

A Even Cloudier Look: Thefts from L'viv Museum

After my post earlier today about corruption in Ukraine and its relationship to museums, followed up by a thoughtful comment,   I came across a L'viv Post article about the theft of manuscripts and books from a Ukrainian museum (linked from the always informative Ukrainian Museum Portal.)  Milena Chorna was generous enough to translate the full article for me which raises as many questions as it answers.  (if you're interested in the full English text, please contact me directly).

What happened?  40 rare objects are missing from the collections storage of the  National Museum in Lviv including 15th century manuscripts, described as priceless.   But here's where it begins to get complicated.  At least some of these losses were identified in 2005 and the museum's director said, "The museum storage of the manuscript department are quite extensive, one of the blocks at Dragomanov street is under remodeling, so we were hoping the manuscripts were just misplaced and would be found in some time. But we did inform the law-enforcement authorities right away.” In 2005 5 books were identified as missing;  now more than 40 are although no list is being made public as the investigation is continuing.   Museum employees deny that the theft could have been from the inside, but they admit that no one else had access to the collections and there have been no signs of forced entry.

The museum's director described the procedure for access to the collections, 
“There could have been no trespassing into the storage area.   The quarters at Dragomanov str., were the department of manuscripts and cunabulas stations itself, is under permanent State security. An outsider can enter the place in order to provide research of a specific book only by a special access granted and signed by the Director of the museum. Such papers are given to no more than 10 people during a year. But the researchers still do not have access to the storage area, by no means. Visitors work at a specially equipped room, where the books are being brought by the staff. Such an access is given to the museum researchers as well, but only in the presence of the custodian. The books are not allowed to be taken away from the museum quarters. I still got no answer from the chief custodian on how such a theft could have occurred.” 
The newspaper reports that there have been rumors about thefts from collections at several L'viv museums, including this one, and other rumors have seen  some of the manuscripts  been offered for sale.  But there's no definitive answer. 

So many questions here and so few answers. 
  • Why was there a delay of 5 years for a full investigation?
  • If there is State Security in the collections, what was their role?
  • Why is information about the stolen items not being made public?
  • What staff had responsibility for care of collections?
  • What about those rumors?  Where were things seen for sale?  Why do the rumors about the collections exist?  Is there any truth or just rumors?
  • Are there other security concerns at the museum?  What would be needed to address them?
  • Is this a reliable news report?
There have been other documented museum thefts in Ukraine--within the past several months a Caravaggio (or reputed Caravaggio) stolen from an Odessa museum was recovered in Germany.  However, Ukraine has no official body to deal with art thefts.   

Compare this occurrence to a recent spate of thefts from small museums and historical societies in western New York State.  When a theft was discovered at one museum a email went out on a regional museum list-serv to alert others;  eventually an arrest was made and the state police circulated photos of recovered objects to museum colleagues in the region. It didn't take 5 years, the information was made public and shared; and the police and the museums worked together.

For museum colleagues all over the world, the Museum Security Network is a great on-line resource to both find and share information about "cultural property protection, preservation, conservation, and security."   Although museum security is not a main focus of my work, I wanted to bring attention to this particular issue in the hopes of encouraging transparency and openness.

Photo:  from brtsergio on Flickr

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great blog! Its pretty fascinating to see someone write about Ukrainian museums with such interest. Sadly, I have to say that you describe Ukrainian life pretty accurately. The whole country is a huge mess right now and the political situation is simply awful, which is pretty bad for the culture. I mean, there hasn't even been a normal Ukrainian-made film made for years! I really hope the situation will improve sooner or later, but I doubt it.