Volume 18, Number 2 .... May 1996


"Museum security". What image does this phrase conjure up? Uniformed individuals, sometimes relaxed, sometimes somber, standing in a gallery surrounded by works of art. The visiting public undoubtedly views the officers' purpose as a presence that deters those who would dare to touch, let alone attempt to remove an object, and probably also thinks of it as a very boring assignment. A museum staff member might add to the list of security chores: responding to emergencies, ranging from sick or injured patrons to evacuation from fire or other disaster; maintaining public order; and ensuring the visiting public complies with museum regulations.

Security can and should, however, provide more than a physical presence and reaction to emergencies. Security should have a more meaningful role as a partner in the care and preservation of museum collections, by joining with conservators, curators and registrars in assuming responsibility for the collections. This expanded role is relevant not only to large institutions such as the Metropolitan, Smithsonian, and Getty, which have adequate security budgets and staffs. It is the small museum that most particularly needs to address security, and, with planning and ingenuity, to create a comprehensive security response that is appropriate and effective.

The small museum may not have the luxury of a guard force, or an on-staff security expert to guide its director and staff in developing a security plan. Security may indeed fall to a conservator, curator, or other staff person. But even those not responsible for security should have some understanding of security requirements, and this may be especially true for those who may consult for small museums. This article will therefore describe how to identify security problems, gather data on possible solutions, and provide those solutions that satisfy liability requirements and are within budget for a small museum.

Step one in the process is to name someone in charge of security. Whether this is a full time position, which of course is advisable, or a collateral duty in smaller museums and other cultural properties, one individual should be given the task of identifying security requirements. Step two is a risk analysis or examination of the current state of affairs with regard to protection of your facility and its contents. How does one who does not have a background in security do this?

A good starting point is to contact the American Association of Museums office in Washington, D.C. where you will be directed to a member of the Association's Standing Committee on Security for specific advice. From this source you are likely to get the following suggestions.

Having designated a security person and done the preliminary research, you are ready to begin to bring your museum up to an acceptable level of security. Now you are confronted with doing a cost/benefit analysis ... what your museum can afford, what are the security priorities, and how to determine the most cost effective and efficient way to mesh the goal of preservation and conservation with the security issues we have identified.

The major risks to our collections are fire, theft, loss, or damage, the latter either intentionally inflicted, such as vandalism, or the result of accident or natural disaster. A security plan should be prepared to address each of these, but this article will focus on protection of collections from theft. This aspect of the plan must address the risk of internal theft as well as theft by the outsider, and must include physical and technical security, human response, and established procedures and policies.

Physical Security

Physical security is normally considered the locking down and securing of a facility against intruders, but it also includes the internal controlling of access -- separating staff from visitors and collection storage areas from those unauthorized to enter. The risk analysis or security survey will identify the specific needs of an institution.

Intrusion Protection

Protection against intrusion involves substantial locks and an alarm system, whether or not there is security on the premises at all times. Locks mean keys, and keys mean key control; procedures need to be set regarding access to keys, particularly perimeter doors and collection storage areas, and the keying system must guard against duplication of a lost key.

Openings should be alarmed; magnetic contacts or switches are the usual choice for doors and windows. Glass break detection devices are needed to protect against a break and entry through a window. Normally, the first two levels of a building should have window protection. Motion detectors can be used as a back up to these first-line defense alarms, or as a substitute where magnetic contacts may do damage to historic fabric. Alarms, in this instance, serve only to give advance notice that something has happened at the perimeter. The response must be worked out with the alarm company and the police jurisdiction that would be called to react to a signal of entry. Time is of the essence; the alarm means nothing if the thief can be gone by the time the police arrive. For that reason, the prize objects of the collection should not be located close to potential entry points, but at locations with additional locks and alarm protection in the museum's interior.

Exhibit case and other collection protection

The unavoidable delay in responding to an off-hours alarm is reason enough to provide another level of protection to artifacts on display or in storage. Additionally, protection is needed against a thief who has lawfully entered during public hours. Large and small, prestigious and lesser known museums have fallen victim to losses that have occurred during open, public hours. Such losses can be prevented through the use of securely locked and alarmed exhibit cases, utilizing security screws to prevent tampering with the case. Also effective are case keys that cannot be removed from the lock when it is in the unlocked position.

Paintings should be under alarm and firmly fixed to the wall with the use of security screws and brackets. Alternatively, hangers and locking devices can be used that require time and knowledge of the system to be able to remove the picture.

In addition, protection can be provided by an alert security or other staff that are available during these hours. Where affordable, closed circuit television and other technologies will assist in monitoring activities in open galleries.

Established Procedures

A security force or staff familiar with well-defined standards and procedures can be the best protection against an intrusion-type theft. It may be remembered that the Gardner theft in Boston occurred after intruders posing as police officers gained entry and then quickly, but with time to spare and alarms and cameras out of operation, pulled off what probably ranks as the most costly museum theft. Museums throughout the country were subsequently reviewing their procedures, if any, to deal with requests by local police agencies to enter the museum! It is reasonable to assume this ploy could have been successful in many museums.

Internal Theft

Prevention of internal theft involves establishment of sound collection practices and procedures, with consistent implementation and updating. It is less costly than installing a security system with all the bells and whistles, but more complex. An inventory of the collections, appropriate documentation of the objects, tracking of the movement of collections, and access procedures and controls are all very important. Diligence in observing these principles of good collections care is critical.

Routine inspections of staff members' packages, bags, etc. can be an effective theft deterrent. Unfortunately it is not insurance against the possibility of staff leaving the premises with easily concealed items or of using the mail system to circumvent inspection procedures. A collection management system that fixes responsibility, ensures periodic inventories, and establishes access procedures is the best defense. The following preventive measures should also be considered:

Preservation and conservation can only occur when the collections are safely where they should be. Protection against theft calls for a partnership with a trained security staff or with the designated security officer. For those assuming this role, there are common sense approaches that can be employed, and, importantly, resources within the museum community to help, as outlined earlier in this article. Museum security professionals would like to make security everybody's business, and to assist others charged with care, custody and preservation of objects of our heritage!

American Association of Museums
1225 I Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C.
202/289-1818 fax 202/289-6578

Suggested Guidelines in Museum Security price: $10.00 members, $12.00 non-members

Thomas Bresson is the Deputy Director of the Office of Protection Services, Smithsonian Institution.

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