Smithsonian moves to fix security lapses

Audit reveals unrestricted access to NNC vault
Published : 10/10/11
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A just-concluded audit of Smithsonian Institution collection stewardship revealed that, of 23 nonstaff individuals with unrestricted card reader access to the Numismatics Division offices and vault, only 10 could be identified by the numismatics staff as current volunteers, interns or researchers, placing the collection at risk to pilfering.

In response to the findings, keyed access to vaults containing items in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History was restricted to authorized employees beginning Oct. 1.

The move was made after Smithsonian Office of Inspector General investigators determined unrestricted access posed an extreme theft risk.

The Smithsonian OIG issued a report Sept. 30 concluding an 18-month collection stewardship audit examining preservation and security concerns in all departments within the National Museum of American History.

The OIG noted that the Smithsonian has scheduled corrective actions to remedy all recommendations made in the audit.

All items of the NNC are stored on site in the museum at 1400 Constitution Ave. N.W. in Washington, D.C., according to Melinda Machado, director of the NMAH’s Office of Public Affairs.

The audit report makes reference to the National Numismatic Collection “only in terms of recommendations for strengthening access into the collections area,” Machado said Oct. 6. “The museum has addressed this issue. Only museum employees are allowed to obtain keys from the security office and they must be returned at the end of their shift.

“What this means is that non-museum employees as well as volunteers, interns or researchers to the numismatics offices must be granted access into the numismatic office area by museum staff and must be accompanied while in the vault.”

Access to vaults is through keyed locks.

During the time the OIG audit was conducted, it was learned one NNC volunteer signed out the key to the Numismatics suite several times a month during the period August 2010 to October 2010, despite his name having been removed from the Key Authorization List several months earlier. “This volunteer also had cardreader access to the Numismatics vault and therefore had unsupervised and unrestricted access to a highly valuable and easily pilfered collection,” according to the OIG’s findings.

Additionally, the OIG auditors found that, besides the existing curatorial staff and security officers, 23 other people had card reader access to the Numismatics offices and vault.

“Numismatics staff could only identify 10 of the 23 individuals as current volunteers, interns, or researchers,” according to the OIG report. “Of the remaining 13 individuals, the Numismatics staff identified six as previous volunteers or interns; could not identify six; and identified one as deceased. We provided OPS [Office of Protection Security] Personnel Security Office with the names of the 23 individuals.”

According to the OIG audit, OPS confirmed that no record checks or background screenings were conducted for most of the 23 individuals, including three current volunteers.

“OPS believes that the unscreened volunteers received their badges before May 2007, when the Smithsonian instituted a policy of conducting background investigations on non-employees,” according to the OIG audit. “After we alerted OPS, the Personnel Security Office disabled the badges for the individuals with no background investigation record.”

Machado said that the NNC vault has three parts — one large room, with two side rooms where most of the paper currency is stored.

Machado said that the Colonial-era currency and the federal issues are all stored in enclosed cabinets within the vault. Most of the paper notes and proofs are stored in closed shelving, Machado said. A sequence of “containerization,” such as plastic sleeves, boxes, and closed cabinets, helps protect the collections, she said.

“There are some paper currency and proofs stored on more open type shelving, but all are in acid free boxes,” Machado said. “We have not had a situation where the sprinklers have gone off and the numismatics vault and storage area have not been subject to any of the types of leaks depicted in the OIG report.”

Machado added: “There are sprinklers in the space and they are connected to a central alarm system which is in this building. We have to have sprinklers in the building by code for fire suppression and life safety. If there is not a fire, but say the sprinklers were somehow to go off, the alarm would sound and then engineers would disable the sprinkler system and our preservation staff would address any issues.”

The full Sept. 30 OIG audit report can be found online at

The NNC contains more than 1 million items, including some pieces that are unique in the collection. ■

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