Auditor General Jack Wagner Says Historical and Museum Commission Not Properly Protecting State Historic Artifacts

Oct 28, 2010, 11:08 ET from Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General

Audit says sculptures, Civil War era-rifle among 1,800 missing pieces

HARRISBURG, Pa., Oct. 28 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Sculptures by a famous artist, an almost 800-year-old Turkish gold ring, and a Civil War-era rifle are among the more than 1,800 historic artifacts that the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission cannot locate and are considered missing, Auditor General Jack Wagner said.

Based on the physical inventories of 11 collections conducted by the commission between 1998 and 2009, Wagner's auditors found that 1,588 artifacts were considered missing.  In addition, auditors sampled 1,473 artifacts from the nine collections at the State Museum and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, and found that 295 artifacts (20 percent) could not be located and are considered missing.

Wagner said he was concerned that hundreds of additional pieces may be missing from the estimated collection of 4.5 million artifacts because of the museum's lax oversight and antiquated inventory system, and recommended that the museum hire a development director to work with private philanthropic organizations and the General Assembly to secure funding for a modern bar-code identification system to record and track its historic artifacts.

"These missing artifacts are pieces of Pennsylvania history that are likely lost forever, either through mishandling or theft," Wagner said at a press conference at the museum. "As guardians of the commonwealth's historic and cultural heritage, the commission must take a more proactive approach to ensure that all artifacts are properly handled and accounted for."

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission was created in 1945 to serve as the official history agency of Pennsylvania, responsible for the collection, conservation, and interpretation of the commonwealth's unique historic and cultural heritage. During the audit period, the commission was responsible for the operation of 23 historic sites and museums throughout the commonwealth, from the Erie Maritime Museum to the Anthracite Heritage Museum near Scranton to the Brandywine Battlefield in southern Chester County, and numerous sites in between.

The commission's goal, through its Collections Management division, which is responsible for artifact accountability, is to conduct inventories every three to five years. But using the commission's inventory documentation, auditors determined that this goal had not been met for 11 of the 23 historic sites. Wagner said inventories at two sites had not been conducted for at least 25 years and there was no record of an inventory ever being conducted at Ephrata Cloister Historic Site.

The commission could not locate two plaster sculptures by artist Robert Tait McKenzie; however, a basic Internet search by the Department of the Auditor General found that two bronze sculptures of the same name as those missing were sold by a New York auction house for $42,000 collectively.  

Wagner's audit determined that the commission's inadequate preservation and physical security of historic artifacts exposed artifacts to damage and potential theft. Auditors found artifacts actually suspended from overhead pipes.  According to curators for three of the State Museum collections, water from leaking pipes has damaged several artifacts that needed to be repaired. Additionally, some artifacts were stored in basements and in areas with varying humidity, which can lead to damage from cracking, warping, decomposition, rusting or mold.

"To ensure that historic artifacts are safe and do not deteriorate over time, the commission needs to store artifacts in an environment that adequately preserves their physical condition and that protects them from theft or vandalism," Wagner said.

In addition to the problems auditors found with items currently listed in the inventory, the commission has a backlog of more than 5,100 artifacts that have not yet been catalogued.  

When new artifacts are added to the collection, the information is printed on a card and included in the manual card inventory system.  Since 1997, the commission has planned to replace its manual card inventory system by computerizing its artifact inventory system.  In 2000, it purchased an electronic database system, but 10 years later, the database is not complete, and is not considered reliable.  As a result, the commission does not know how many artifacts it maintains.

Wagner said that in order to accurately account for artifact inventory, the commission should record each artifact into inventory at the time it is received using a bar code system. Instead of immediately entering an artifact into inventory upon receipt, the commission waits for a curator to catalog the artifact, which increases the likelihood that something can be lost or stolen before it is included in the inventory.

Wagner said that deep budget cuts the commission has experienced in recent years were contributing factors to the lax oversight and dated inventory system. The commission's annual appropriation declined by 54 percent in three years, from $58.4 million in fiscal year 2006-07 to $27 million in 2009-10. As a result, the museum's staffing has declined from 443 full-time positions to 228 during the corresponding period.

Wagner made 25 recommendations to address identified deficiencies and strengthen controls to protect invaluable historic artifacts, including that the Historical and Museum Commission should:

  • Conduct a complete inventory of all collections at the State Museum and historic sites and ensure an accurate accountability of all artifacts maintained by the commission;
  • Require Collections Management to conduct physical inventories on a routine basis by using inventory cards to locate the artifacts;
  • Develop ideas to increase revenue or monetary donations, including creating the position of development director to ensure the commission takes full advantage of financial grant opportunities and other fundraising possibilities;
  • Ensure that Collections Management oversees and maintains official inventory records for all collections;
  • Develop policies and procedures for Collections Management to use for conducting physical inventories; and
  • Develop and implement a plan to record all of the artifacts into the computerized inventory system to make it the official inventory record.

Auditor General Jack Wagner is responsible for ensuring that all state money is spent legally and properly.  He is the commonwealth's elected independent fiscal watchdog, conducting financial audits, performance audits and special investigations.  The Department of the Auditor General conducts more than 5,000 audits per year.  To learn more about the Department of the Auditor General, taxpayers are encouraged to visit the department's website at

SOURCE Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General