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May 5, 2011

Thursday, May 05, 2011 - 2 comments

ARCA 2011 Student Marc Balcells: Art Criminologist

Marc Balcells at The Met
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Marc Balcells Magrans is a Fulbright scholar, a Spanish criminologist, and a criminal lawyer. He currently lives in New York where he is completing a PhD in Criminal Justice. His research focuses on art crime and its relationship to terrorism and organized crime, as well as museum security and its connection to art crimes and theoretical criminology. He has taught several courses on International Criminal Law and Spanish Criminal Law and Criminology, he has published internationally, and he has served as a media consultant for art crime issues.

Marc Balcells’ research has led him to study the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the war; museum security; the value of art as a catalyst for looting throughout history; and a small ethnography on boredom of museum guards at the Metropolitan Museum.

He speaks Catalan, Spanish, English, Italian, French and German.

ARCA Blog: Marc, you are enrolled in this summer’s ARCA program for the study of art crime and the protection of cultural heritage in Amelia, Italy. What attracted you to the program and what are your expectations about the courses, the instructors and the students? And have you ever lived in Italy or in a medieval city in Umbria?
Marc: I think I can be pretty straightforward when I say I am really excited to spend all summer learning about art crime in all its facets! What really attracted me to the program is the fact that it is so unique and one-of-a-kind: I agree with the fact that art crime needs sound research, and to me, this program really delivers this foundation to the students, thanks to experienced faculty members. I am looking forward to all courses that are criminologically oriented (where I already feel comfortable, due to the fact that I have already taught in this field), but also the ones related to art or the art world, because at least in my case I'm venturing into, to some extent, uncharted territory. Regarding the students, we have been communicating between us, and you can feel a great comraderie even one month ahead of the start of the program! And regarding Italy, I have lost track of how many times I have been there, albeit I must admit it is my first time living in an Italian village and I am looking forward to blending with the locals!
ARCA Blog: As a frequent visitor to museums, I have been curious about the people who guard the art. In the United States you studied the museum security guards at the Metropolitan Museum. What did you learn from that study?
Marc: That small study, which I hope one day will develop into an academic article, was made out of ethnographical fieldwork. Of course, contrary to statistical research, it implies that the knowledge that it is being generated may not be generalizable anywhere else (another museum may show different results), but the depth of the detail produced by the observations is amazing. People tend to think about this passive museum guard staring into the void (which was, actually, the title of the project): I was also misguided by this myth, and actually it all originated as one ethnography regarding boredom. And well, yes, some of them may be there for the peace and solitude of the job, but then I found an amazing group of guards, trained in the arts or not, who cared a lot for what they were protecting. Some of them even launched a magazine! There were observations (I passed as a visitor taking notes) that were, simply put, amazing! However, it is sad that their voices are not often heard when addressing security concerns. At least, with my project, I tried to put a voice to their role.
ARCA Blog: The guards who left the biggest impression on me were those employed by the archaeological museum in Napoli. The impressive collection of mostly artifacts from Pompeii are housed in a sprawling building with large French doors which were flung open in the hot July afternoon I visited. The guards wore thick rubber sole shoes and appeared casually dressed. They didn’t appear to be a threat to anyone. However, then we remembered that Napoli is protected by organized crime and thought only a fool would steal from that museum. What makes an effective security guard?
Marc: Well, this example is perfect to realize that in certain parts of the world, organized crime has a palpable presence and blends with other legal activities. I would not label them as the effective guard (after all, it is well known that, after receiving a bonus in cash from visitors, they took some of them to some restricted areas). The effective guard should receive both training in art (again, as it was commented by the Met guards I interviewed, if you care about what you are protecting, your job becomes more engaging) and also, a training similar to the one received by guards in airports and other transportation hubs, where they are used to spot suspicious persons. This approach is already implemented in museums (see Ahern and Amore’s article, in ARCA’s book “Art and Crime”) and there is an interesting article by Charney in The Journal of Art Crime (“Ten Cost-Effective Steps to Improve Security at your Museum”, fall 2009) that proves it is not only not costly, but also should make guards more proactive and engaged in their line of work.
ARCA Blog: What is situational crime prevention and how did you relate it to museum security?
Marc: Situational crime prevention, along other theories, constitutes what is called environmental criminology. These theories differ from other criminological theories in the fact that they do not seek to answer why the offender did it (what motivations did he or she had in mind), but rather to prevent crime from happening by analyzing the physical surroundings of where crime takes place. Situational crime prevention, therefore, seeks to make the criminal act more difficult by adding barriers and difficulties, in a nutshell. We live, actually, surrounded by this theory: airports, ATMs… But not every measure is based on situational crime prevention, and this is the point I try to prove. These theories follow a method: you have a theoretical foundation, a methodology, a set of measures and, once implemented, you evaluate their success. Science, then, drives situational crime prevention, which is very different from simple prevention techniques with no effective and serious research behind it.
ARCA Blog: In places of civil unrest, museums like the National Museum in Baghdad are raided and the objects sold on the secondary market outside of the country. What can countries do to protect their cultural assets in these cases? What was learned from the looting of the Baghdad museum?
Marc: Even though it will sound utopic, as a criminologist I believe that in order to reduce effectively crime, better social policies play a fundamental role. However, the country must be able to enact them, and it may not be possible in developing countries. Many criminologists refer to anomie as this pressure on achieving goals through illicit means if all licit alternatives are blocked to you, in a very simplistic reduction of these theories. I analyzed the looting of the National Museum of Baghdad in this perspective: first of all, according to several sources and reports, the biggest amount of looted objects came from regular people (which is, per se, quite indicative). It must be noted that, theoretically and practically, the solutions we will be looking for differ radically from the ones that should be applied to professionals that were targeting the museum and waiting for their opportunity to break in and take profit of all the chaos, while at the same time spotting the most valuable items. What would I propose, therefore, for citizens tempted to break into a museum in times of unrest? Better social policies are basic (after all, they are revolting to claim for a better way of living) to eliminate temptations to resort to illicit activities. But it is also basic that these are also followed by educative measures teaching pride on your heritage: look at the Egyptians protecting their sites, for example.
ARCA Blog: You speak numerous languages and studied Classics in Humanities before focusing on criminology. What do you envision for yourself as a dream occupation after you have completed your studies?
Marc: In my studies, I always “go international”, as I put it! That is, I am always looking at several countries, comparing, analyzing... Hence, my dream job would be working at UNESCO. And, if I may ask, some time to teach art crime and criminology to others!


I never comment on blogs, however I'm very impressed by your achievements. I'm currently typing up a proposal for my dissertation, which is in regards to art theft and museum security issues. If you have any good reading literature do let me know.


MetMuseum big lie about their Head of King David, 38.180.