Susan Vaughan here. I’ve written about this misadventure before, but readers and other writers have encouraged me to share it again. I think they need a chuckle or two.
Several years ago when the Romance Writers of America conference was in Washington, D.C., I arranged to do a little book research while there. In the now published Ring of Truth, the story involves trying to find the crown jewels stolen years before by the hero’s father. But the backstory is about that theft, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. No, not the one in the film Night at the Museum; that museum’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 said that it was no problem and I needed no appointment but to come to the security office and they’d find him. Very casual and welcoming. Hah!
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.
I used the time to scout the locations 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, even one in the ceiling of where I thought my burglars could have access.
In fact, I had to elbow tourists with bigger cameras out of the way to get a good shot of the Hope Diamond, which had just been reset and only recently returned to the exhibit.
Finally, Smith met with me in an outer office, me beside the secretary’s desk, him leaning against a table. The big man was an imposing figure, even more so because of his stance and suspicious stare. A burly guard stood by. I thought at the time 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, like himself. Which explained the military, intimidation stance.
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 expression 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 thanked him, then followed the guard down the hall, up the stairs, and all the way to the door leading to Constitution Avenue.
I wrote Ring of Truth as planned, with a guard on the take—yes, an inside job—but not worrying about accuracy, I made up the details of how the jewel thieves managed the robbery. The story of this research outing has provided entertainment at many book events since that misadventure of mine.
I take pride now in the fact that I am the only author to be kicked out of the Museum of Natural History.
NOTE: This book and the others in the Devlin Security series are on sale starting tomorrow, August 21, for 5 days. The first book, On Deadly Ground, is free, Ring of Truth is 99c, and the other two are also sale priced. Here’s a link to the series sale: http://getBook.at/DevlinSeries .
It would have been interesting to chat with the guard and secretary afterward. I bet he wasn’t much liked by staff.
Indeed. But as the guard marched me out, I didn’t feel any warm and fuzzy vibes from him.
Great story, Susan! I’m so glad you stuck to your proverbial guns and wrote the book as an inside job.
Thanks, Brenda. At no point did I consider doing otherwise.
Well, at least you had a MEMORABLE experience and it gave you this wonderful anecdote to share! With all due respect, I can’t imagine a security official sharing anything about how his facility’s security could be breached, even to an attractive, congenial young woman (aha! an obvious plant!). On a happier note, a government contractor I worked for rented out several of the Smithsonian museums–Air and Space, American History, and Natural History–over the years for their company Christmas parties. Natural History was the best–you could wander, eat, drink, and dance in any of the floors and exhibitions. It was great to stand on the balcony over the huge rotunda watching hundreds of people wildly dancing around Henry the Elephant!