'May I Help You, Sir?!'
By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer
It's not that I'm not unfamiliar with the security hysteria that professionals in the field share about backpacks, rutsacks, bookbags, well, anything that's strapped to your torso. (In Venice a few months ago, I had to stuff my bag in a companion's handbag before entering the Basilica on San Marco Square. Of course, the bomb I might have had in my bag would just have been transfered to her bag. Never mind).
So when I visited the Art Institute of Chicago over the weekend, I wasn't entirely surprised about the backpack phobia I encountered. Banned, banished, prohibited, outlawed, shunned, and, for good measure, Verboten.
Some security personnel, at least those at the Art Institute, seem to believe that backpacks are the carriers of choice for suicide bombers and other lunatics who go to museums. These guardians of our safety always get fixated. So, if isn't backpacks, it's shoes at airports.
People, puleeze, some common sense.
My backpack is a small, lightweight black nylon job about the size of small plastic grocery bag. (I carry my 'tools' within, pads, pens, research materials, camera, and the like).
Still, as I learned again over the weekend, thanks to a stoic Art Institute guard, common sense is about common in these places as is sense.
'You must check that bag, Sir!' the museum's stern-looking security officer declared with the kind of robotic voice that has become the lingua franca of the TSA and others in the growing rent-a-cop security busyness. I recognized the ominous tone, always a breath away from the menacing 'May I help you, Sir?!' That being, of course, a prelude to a Red-Alert 'Situation,' and, ultimately, arrest. In case you didn't know, backpacks can be dangerous stuff.
After my Venice experience, I learned my lesson. Instead of stuffing my bag, as I had the Basilica, in my companion's (this time, by the way, hers was the size of a small duffel bag), I meekly checked my bag with the proper authorities. (Everything else, I transfered to my companion's duffel).
Well, that was that. Or was it?
Most of us, of course, face security issues -- at work, during travel -- almost every day. As a consequence, we have a stake in the process. Not surprisingly, as I write frequently about museums their caches, I have a singular interest in security as it applies to these institutions. Almost all, undertake some public display of security -- not to deter the odd thief, but rather to declare the institution's dedication to terrorist deterrence.
Most of this visible, obvious security -- at museums, as is the case at airports -- is a feel-good sham. It's security theatre. Out of 10,000 persons, there's the odd knucklehead with a penknife. As for the real bad guys, do you think they're still carrying their plastique in shoe heels?
Some museums get it right. Smart mmuseums like the Corcoran in Washington (I was there last week), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (will be there this week), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Constitutional Center and many, many others bow to the need for a public display of alleged security by visually inspecting of all bags. This upfront eye-balling is done by the museum's rent-a-cop staff. The pros are in the back of the shop.
Maybe, it's a Chicago thing, this emphasis on backpack security. In a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, I also read that backpacks were not welcome in galleries. Really? Nah. Not a problem I was told, as I was ushered into the museum with my backpack slung over a shoulder.
The Art Institute of Chicago, one of the country's great museums, needs to lighten up and refocus. Otherwise, as with any fixation, it will eventually make you wall-eyed.