A few years ago the Romance Writers of America conference was in Washington, D.C., so I arranged to do a little book research while there. In a book I’m currently revising, the backstory involves a theft of crown jewels at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. No, not the one in the film Night at the Museum; that one’s in New York City. I needed to see the layout of the area where the theft would take place and to decide if my fictional burglary was realistic given the security at the museum.
A couple of weeks before, I phoned the museum and reached the Museum of Natural History’s manager of security. I’ll call him Smith here. You’ll see why. I explained about being a novelist doing book research and asked for an appointment to discuss security background for my novel. I stressed I didn’t expect him to reveal security measures. He quickly said I needed no appointment but to come to the security office and they’d find him.
On my free afternoon, I took the Metro to the Smithsonian stop and walked to the museum. A guard directed me to the security office, deep in the bowels of the building, where a helpful uniformed guard phoned Smith, but he couldn’t meet with me for an hour.
It was time well spent seeing the exhibits I needed for my book. Various gems and crown jewels are exhibited in the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals on the second floor. Security was visible all around—guards standing at alert, cameras on the ceiling—and invisible sensors as well, I assumed. No one seemed to care that I took loads of pictures.
Finally, Smith met with me in an outer office, me beside the secretary’s desk, him leaning against a table. A burly guard stood by. I think he’d been flirting with the pretty secretary. I again explained to Smith my purpose, first asking about how Smithsonian Special Police were hired and trained. He gladly discussed that, stating proudly that many were veterans.
Then I launched into the meat of my questions, saying the burglary in my story took place years previously and stressing I didn’t need to know the exact security measures, only if my burglary was at all possible. As I ran through my scenario, his blank cop face got less blank and more hostile. He insisted no burglary could happen under his watch. As soon as I said in my story two guards were involved, he demanded—yes, demanded—I not write the story as an inside job. All the guards are honorable and honest. It couldn’t happen, he said.
All this time the burly guard and the secretary seemed to barely breathe, riveted on our conversation. Smith leaned back, arms folded, and speculated I might not be who I claimed to be. Perhaps I was using this meeting as a ruse to set up my own crime. I wanted to shout at him, “I called you two weeks ago. Why didn’t you check on my identity in the meantime?” Some security expert. But I held my tongue.
I quickly dug out my proof, such as it was. When I handed Smith my bookmarks and driver’s license, the guard and the secretary immediately asked for bookmarks. “For my wife,” said the guard. The boss ignored them—and my bookmarks. He was done.
He directed the guard to escort me out of the museum. With adrenaline roaring in my ears, I stood and shook his hand, then followed the guard down the hall, up the stairs, and all the way to the door leading to Constitution Avenue.
I may be the only author to be kicked out of the Museum of Natural History.