New state museum may not be best place to house priceless documents

Locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen is, unfortunately, a familiar practice - especially on Beacon Hill. When the theft of one of Massachusetts' most valuable historic documents was discovered Aug. 8, the state museum and archives where it was housed were closed and have remained off-limits to the public.

While the closing is temporary, it underscores a major shortcoming in the state's capacity to safeguard its priceless papers. The answer is better security: display cases that are protected by burglar alarms as well as on-duty guards or surveillance cameras. In the meantime, the museum, located in the basement of the State House, should be protected by either capitol police or archives personnel, and visitors should be allowed to view the remaining valuable documents.

The theft of the elaborately decorated cover page of the 1628 Massachusetts Bay Company charter, from King Charles I of England, has to be an embarrassment to Secretary of State Michael Joseph Connolly, whose responsibilities include protection of such valuables. The timing of the theft is also particularly awkward for Mr. Connolly, who is in the throes of his campaign for the Democratic US Senate nomination.

Connolly should have made certain that a greater measure of security than a locked glass-and-bronze case was provided for the historic treasure. If budget restraints made it impossible to provide adequate protection for the museum and adjoining archives, Connolly surely owed it to the people of Massachusetts to go public with his concern.

One reason security at the museum was not beefed up months ago may be the scheduled relocation of the documents and other valuable records to a new climate-controlled (and hopefully more secure) building at Boston's Columbia Point. That three-level, granite-faced structure, now well under way, will be ready for occupancy in about a year.

The new structure, estimated to cost almost $19.1 million, may be a fitting neighbor, architecturally and culturally, to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library and the Boston campus of University of Massachusetts. In the mid-1970s, the Kennedy Library was being planned, and its trustees and others were eager to have the adjacent tract used for educational or cultural purposes rather than have it remain undeveloped, commercialized, or given over to an extension of the nearby Columbia Point housing project.

Even so, state lawmakers' choice of the 5.2-acre site in Dorchester appears to have been based more on political than practical considerations.

For one thing, the location, more than three miles from the Freedom Trail downtown, does not lend itself to visitor convenience. A more convenient site for the state museum could have been found, perhaps using an existing structure near the State House, if not under the golden dome. Acquisition and renovation of a building downtown might have cost much less, and been ready much sooner, than the archives project at Columbia Point.

Although the Columbia Point site was selected several years before Connolly moved into office in January 1979, it was not then too late to shift the new museum site to a location in town. Except for the initial $500,000 appropriated in 1976, nary a penny of state funding had been authorized until 1979.

Now the project has advanced too far to be halted. Still, its construction raises serious doubts whether it is in the best interest of the people of Massachusetts, who will be paying for the fortresslike structure for the next two decades and possibly beyond.

While a larger and more secure repository for state documents is needed, some of the $19.1 million for this project might be better spent providing for the state's needy, for better schools, or for crime prevention.

Only a fraction of the 102,000-square-foot floor space in the new structure will be used for the museum. Larger areas will be allotted to storage space for old records of various state agencies. Also planned are a state microfilming center and archives containing 12 million documents, including every piece of legislation filed since colonial times.

The archives, expected to be used mostly by historians and researchers, will be able to take in the commonwealth's records ''well into the 21st century,'' according to Mike Lapuck, the archives project director.

In addition, a climate-control system will help preserve the documents. Cameras similar to those in banks will help attendants keep an eye on security.

Presumably there will be some type of a protective force on duty round-the-clock - something that has been lacking at the present quarters of the museum and archives.

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