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Dark Secrets of Stealing Rare Books

July 31, 2019 2:13 PM | Office IFCPP (Administrator)

Reposted from Ashtree Books

Theft of books has occurred for centuries, but cultural institutions don’t always want to talk about it. We speak with collection managers who protect some of our most valuable artifacts.

Although there are films and books dedicated to the theft of rare items from cultural institutions – think The Map Thief and American Animals – it’s not often that we hear about theft from our cultural institutions. Whether it’s at the National Library of Australia or Museums Victoria, a lot of quiet work is being done by keepers of our most precious books to ensure they are not taken.

‘There’s not a lot of writing and research around theft and I think that’s particularly because cultural institutions are pretty reluctant to talk about it,’ said Maryanne McCubbin, Head of Strategic Collection Management at Museums Victoria.  

‘They get very embarrassed when theft of their material occurs from time to time; they see it as a breach of their trust of the public to look after collection material.’

McCubbin oversees a range of services across all of the collections including conservation and storage databases and collections on exhibition.

‘My role is to try and prevent theft,’ she told ArtsHub. ‘In my view, you can’t really do that properly unless you know the typology of the theft that you’re dealing with.’ 

Through her position, McCubbin became interested in researching theft from collecting institutes, to gain a wider understanding about why they occur, a subject which forms the premise for her talk at Melbourne Rare Book Week.

‘I’ve really focused on looking at histories of theft from libraries, archives and museums up until the 1960s in Australia,’ she tells ArtsHub. ‘I focus, to date, particularly on theft in Australian museums, but I’ve also started to look at books and associated material from libraries in Australia.’

Alongside her historical research, McCubbin keeps an eye on current thefts as they occur from museums and libraries around Australia.

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