Tourists are stealing the cobbled streets of Rome piece by piece. Photo by Paolo.

You probably consider yourself a law-abiding citizen who would never do anything so brazen as to steal a piece of a country’s heritage. Walk off with one of Michelangelo’s sculptures? Of course not. Slip a painting off an art gallery wall? Never.

When you think about stealing art and artifacts on such a large scale, it appears so obviously to be wrong. But on a smaller scale, the line between right and wrong becomes blurred to many people.

It’s a problem that historical cities like Rome know all too well. This year, police and airport security in the Italian capital have reported a huge spike in the number of people found smuggling artifacts in their luggage. Tourists are mostly pocketing loose cobblestones and broken pieces of mosaics, which to them, seems harmless enough. However, the cumulative effect of removing parts of the city that are more than 2,000 years old has authorities concerned.

Although the items have no real monetary value, [Police Chief] Mr. Del Greco said it was technically still theft and they are “taking away part of Rome’s culture and heritage”.

So how do you stop ignorant tourists from removing historical relics? Fencing or roping off sites is one possible solution, but doing so would make historical places harder to appreciate. And in many cases where the attractions are out in the open – such as Rome’s cobbled streets – roping off and policing the sites are difficult to do, if not impossible.

Trying to stop theft of artifacts around the world

In Berlin, authorities are trying to protect what’s left of the Berlin Wall. 45,000 slabs of concrete have been chipped away and removed by locals and tourists alike, leaving very little of the historic wall that once split the city in two. In order to preserve the remaining section, the wall has been coated in a graffiti-proof varnish and closed-circuit cameras will be installed to monitor the restored stretch of wall.

Tourists and locals have been chipping off bits of the Berlin Wall for years. Photo by Paul Downey.

In the Southern English town of Brighton, authorities have tried to raise awareness of the destruction of its beaches. Tourists frequently remove the brightly colored stones to take home as souvenirs – but the pebbles don’t just serve an aesthetic or historical function – they’re an important part of the city’s sea defenses. Tourism authorities launched a campaign encouraging visitors to “Bring a pebble back to Brighton” in the hopes of halting the damage.

Vacationers keep pocketing the colorful pebbles at Brighton Beach. Photo by Shane Rounce.

The power of words in preventing theft

At the end of the day, no amount of barricading, policing, or vandalism-proofing is going to stop all theft of artifacts and antiquities. Really, the most important step in protecting historical sites is raising public awareness of the issue. However, it’s important that tourism and park authorities go about this in the right way. Take for example the case of Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, USA. The park had a huge problem with visitors stealing bits of petrified wood, so it put up a sign to try and educate tourists and deter further theft. This is what the sign said:

“Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.”

If this sign would have deterred you from pilfering petrified wood from the historical forest, that’s great… but unfortunately, you’d be in the minority. It turns out this sign had the opposite effect to what was intended and actually encouraged people to steal.

Why? Robert Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University, wanted to figure out exactly that. He ran an experiment testing out different types of signs, to see what kind of messages would stop people from stealing, and what kind of messages would further bad behavior.

Theft is endangering Petrified National Forest in Arizona. Photo by Tlpolcharsky.

It turns out the problem with the sign at Petrified Forest National Park is all in the wording: once visitors were aware just how many other people were taking bits of wood from the park, they got the impression it was “normal” behavior and proceeded to do the same thing. According to Cialdini,

“In trying to alert the public to the widespread nature of a problem, public service communicators can make it worse.”

Cialdini’s study basically shows that when we’re put into a situation, we look for cues about how other people are responding in the same situation. We want to know what the “norm” is so we know how to behave.

What does that mean for public awareness programs and signs? Well, instead of focusing on the fact that people are harming the landscape or environment (and making that seem like the norm), authorities should focus on the fact that many people are working to protect and preserve the landscape (thus encouraging others to do the same). Cialdini’s research about how other people affect our choices is fascinating stuff (you can read more about it here), and it could just be the answer to stopping tourists from stealing relics and antiquities from important sites around the world.