Last month news sources reported on the arrest of a Drew University (New Jersey, USA) student who stole a number of historical documents from the school’s Archives Center. As the official archival repository of published and unpublished documents for the United Methodist Church, the Archives Center is a massively important resource for global Methodism. For example, the facility’s vast collection of materials includes over 150 original letters written by John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist tradition, as well as the records of various denominational agencies within United Methodism and the personal papers of religious leaders and missionaries.
The first year student, William Scott, is accused of stealing from the university’s collection some of its most prized possessions: over two dozen Wesley letters, each having an estimated market value between $5,000 and $12,000; 11 presidential letters from Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, William McKinley, and Dwight D. Eisenhower; a letter written by Richard M. Nixon when he was vice president; and an original letter by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Ten of the Wesley letters were sent via FedEx to an antiques dealer in England, while FBI agents discovered the other documents in a file in Scott’s dormitory.
This case of a student pilfering historical documents belonging to his university raises several key issues in regards to cultural heritage:
First, there is the question of security. Like other student workers, Mr. Scott’s assignment at the Center involved restoring and cataloging thousands of archival materials, and he was given a key to access those documents housed in the temperature- and light-controlled storage vault. Although it is believed there have been no previous instances of theft in the 20 years of student employment at the Archives Center, Mr. Scott’s actions make me wonder if the university should reconsider who is permitted to work with their collections vis-à-vis the safety of its museum objects. They may not have been able to predict Mr. Scott’s green eyes, but perhaps the practice of employing students to handle historically significant documents should be abandoned in the interest of object security. The Archives Center could potentially hire external collections management firms to perform the services once assigned to students or include a more stringent vetting process for prospective candidates, pulling students only from related disciplines, i.e. History, Religious Studies/Theology, Archaeology, Art/Art history, American Studies, etc. (I realize these suggestions can not absolutely guarantee the protection of objects, but at least there would be a stronger sense of liability in trained professionals and students who hold an intellectual interest in the objects they are handling, rather than a disconnected 18-year-old lacrosse player working part-time in the Archives Center.) I support work-study positions with an academic purpose; however there must be some foresight as to who is ultimately dealing with the objects.
Second, and on a similar note, Mr. Scott was curiously unfamiliar with proper conservation methods. Paper is particularly vulnerable to agents of deterioration, such as fluctuating relative humidity and temperature levels, light exposure, insect damage, and atmospheric pollutants, and thus it requires special conservation methods to prevent irreparable damage. The antiques dealer in England was alarmed by the chosen shipping method of the Wesley letters after two he received had suffered damage while in transit. There is no doubt that the other documents, equally as fragile when not cared for, had suffered stress and damage even when sitting in a file in Mr. Scott’s dresser. Perhaps it was the nature of the crime that called for hasty handling, but again the university and Archives Center are in part responsible for not taking account of the students and their work.
Lastly, Mr. Scott was charged with one count of knowingly stealing an object of cultural heritage from a museum and if convicted faces up to 10 years in prison. To be sure, he most likely will not even do as much as six months, though, settling for a long probationary period and a stern slap on the wrist instead. Does the punishment fit the crime? Not quite. Mr. Scott tried to capitalize on a cultural history that he was truly fortunate enough to be handling in the first place. The Methodist Church considers the stolen objects treasures, and to have so easily taken them from their storage place at the university might shatter the Church’s peace of mind about their overall safety at the Archives Center. His attempted theft will no doubt bring about a change to the security measures at the university and their perspective on student work positions. Lastly, Mr. Scott’s actions might also constitute something like a crime against culture. Those documents belonged not only to his university and the Methodist Church, but also to all of us equally. The Wesley letters represent an important piece of American history, and it is astounding that Mr. Scott would try to profit from the objects he was responsible for protecting in the first place. As U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman laments, “It is a sad day when a student at one of our nation’s learning institutions pilfers great cultural and historical resources, rather than respects and learns from them.”
Do you think Mr. Scott deserves any clemency?