Friday, September 5, 2008

Breaking News: attempted break-in at Dickinson Museum

There was an attempted break-in this morning at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, specifically, the 1813 Dickinson Homestead in which the poet spent most of her life.

Partial and unofficial information suggests that this was a case of disorderly and antisocial behavior (one might speculate about alcohol or drug abuse) rather than any sort of attack on the museum, as such.

The publication of Brock Clarke's provocatively titled and darkly comedic novel, Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England(2007)--which begins with the narrator's confession, "I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts"--of course set preservationists everywhere on edge, though he was welcomed to the Valley as part of his book tour last year.

Fortunately the Dickinson Museum is adequately protected and well monitored, but the incident underscores the need for vigilance.  Many other small museums and historic structures, whether due to meagre resources or for other reasons, lack proper security measures against both human mischief and natural disaster.  Installation of such systems even in the best of cases poses stiff aesthetic and technical challenges.  And of course, large-scale natural disasters can overwhelm even the best security measures.  Preservationists breathed a sigh of relief when Hurricane Gustav failed to develop into the catastrophe that was Katrina. They are still struggling, not without controversy, to save what can be saved from the destruction of three years ago.

The near misses this past week in both New Orleans and Amherst remind us just how fragile and precious our historic resources are. That they have survived this long is due in no small measure to good luck, but we cannot rely on good luck alone to protect them in the future.

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