Museum Security Network

Steve Keller about David Liston

I was sorry to see the announcement about Dave Liston. I wanted to take a few minutes to explain to the many “young” readers who Dave is since he has been absent from the front lines in recent years. I think it’s important that everyone knows of his contribution to the community.

For years, Dave was the Training Officer for Smithsonian. In the late 1970’s the conference now known as the National Conference on Cultural Property Protection was known as the Belmont Conference and was held at a historic house in Belmont Maryland, just for Smithsonian employees. As many of you know, I was hired to be Director of Security at the Art Institute of Chicago the day the theft of three Cezanne paintings, then the largest art theft in U.S. history, was discovered. My boss asked if I could go to Washington even before reporting to work to meet with Bob Burke, the late Director of Security there. They called Bob and he sent me a message to contact Dave Liston. The next day I drove from my home in Pennsylvania to Belmont to attend the second Belmont Conference as an observer and to meet with Burke about the theft after hours.

Dave Liston was the first person in museum security I ever met. Many people have told me that Dave is the first they met also. He introduced me to every attendee and to Burke. It was obvious to me that the conference was Dave’s show and he was the driving force behind it and was one of those people I call “facilitators” who make things happen. Over the next ten years I learned that Dave was more than just the training officer. Burke was a prominent person and was invited to speak publically, testify before Congress and teach, and Liston was the person who put together most, if not all, of his presentations, slide shows, etc. Dave was, for all practical purposes, for years the only person behind putting together the growing National Conference. And he was, for hundreds of people around the world, the “go to guy” if you needed something. Liston could get it for you or he knew the person who could. He was the central point of contact for all of us. Everyone knew Dave. Everyone.

To many people, Dave Liston was a pain in the . . Well, you know. He got a kick out of keeping things stirred up. That’s one thing I liked about him. He would call my office and ask for Steve Layne and call Layne and ask for me. But he kept us on our toes.

Many people complained about the job Dave did in putting together the National Conference but those of us who knew, knew that one person can only do so much. Somehow the conference grew and thrived. His contribution to that conference was incredible when you realize the facts.

More important than the fact that we probably wouldn’t have a Smithsonian Conference today without Dave Liston, literally hundreds of security professionals knew they were free to call Dave any ttime and get training or other materials they could use for their own programs. Everyone called Dave. As the “go to guy” at Smithsonian, if you went to Burke or his successors for something, you would probably be referred to Dave eventually anyway. I’ve known security managers from small institutions who didn’t have the funding to travel to DC to attend the National Conference. Liston would learn of this and work with Bob Burke to invite that person to speak as a panelist. They would then contact the museum director and explain that the security manager had been invited to speak and convince the director to provide funding. This type of extra effort truly helped many young professionals rise through the ranks and thrive in their jobs. You may be one of them.

I don’t know how many times Burke dispatched Dave and others on his staff to travel to museums having difficulties to help get their programs on track. Read that as save the “butt” of the security director who needed intensive personal help getting his program back on track. If Liston didn’t actually travel, you can bet he provided support for those who did.

For the past several years Dave has been in another assignment and few know him today. That’s unfortunate.

Our profession does a terrible job of recognizing the people who are the true leaders in the museum security profession. There are a small number of people who have contributed significantly to make museum security the specialty that it is today. We have resources today because people like Dave gave time and effort generously. But guys like Dave usually don’t get the credit. They work behind the scenes so people like Burke can make things happen. When they pass on, someone decides to give them an award. Why not thank these people when they can hear your appreciation?

I hope that someone on the Burke Award Committee will nominate Dave Liston for the Burke Award as he is long overdue for it and I hope that all of you who did not know Dave but attend the Smithsonian Conference realize that without Dave Liston it would never have taken roots. I hope that the Committee to nominate people for the Burke Award have the leadership to tell the sponsors that they don’t care that Liston is technically inelligible for the award as a Smithsonian employee and demand that the rules be bent. I knew Bob Burke well. He called me his “personal security consultant” and we spoke on the phone many times per month. I can tell you without the slightest doubt that Burke would want Dave recognized for his contributions with the 2009 Burke Award. If you agree, now would be a great time to make your feelings known by asking that the Committee place Dave Liston’s name in nomination, modifying the rules if necessary to make him elligible.

Dave, you were a pioneer in modern museum security. When I came into the profession in 1979 there were no property passes, policy manuals, employee ID cards, card readers, Security Guidelines, affordable gallery CCTV cameras or wireless alarms in use. You helped us learn about and develop these things and you were the one who made them available to the world. You helped move museum security out of the “Dark Ages” and into the modern era. There are not many pioneers left. And while you are still able to hear me say it, I want to say “Thanks for all you did for all of us. Be well. You are in our prayers.”

Steve Keller

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