Apollo Magazine

Is museum security robust enough to counter crime and terrorism?

Cultural sites have been targeted by criminals and terrorists in recent years. How are they responding to the changing contemporary threat?

In 2017 the successful management of cultural heritage sites depends on striking the right balance between visitor engagement and security. No one wants museums and galleries to feel like fortresses, but security can be a factor in where visitors choose to go. Today’s institutions work hard to ensure that their sites and collections prove popular with the public, whilst maintaining robust procedures to ensure the safety of their collections, visitors and staff. Consistent cuts to funding, however, have made this task particularly difficult.

Most people will be familiar with the high-level security routinely employed at airports and train stations, but they may be surprised by the increasingly similar checks being adopted at museums and cultural sites across the world. Sadly, such measures are a necessary part of museum security in the modern era. Like most visitor attractions, cultural sites represent high-profile targets for organised criminals and terrorists. By their very nature museums are publicly accessible symbols of history and culture: they are designed to welcome large numbers of national and international visitors, whilst offering access to priceless artefacts. For those looking to inflict mass casualties, steal or destroy valuable objects, cultural sites can seem like attractive targets.

Thefts from museums are relatively rare, but they can be extremely damaging to an institution’s reputation. In February 2017, three men, including ‘Spider-Man’ Vjeran Tomic, were sentenced for their involvement in the 2010 theft of five priceless paintings from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The trial reignited interest in the theft and shone a rather harsh light on the museum’s security.

During the trial Tomic claimed he had made several reconnaissance visits to the museum prior to the theft to spray acid on the mount of an external ground floor bay window. This made it easier to later remove the window before cutting the padlock and chain of the internal metal grill and climbing in to the museum. Tomic claimed that he only intended to steal one work by Fernand Léger but when the alarm failed to sound he found he could take his time, and after an hour left with the Léger and works by Modigliani, Picasso, Braque and Matisse. Subsequent investigations revealed that the alarm wasn’t working at the time of the theft and the sensor detectors had failed to signal on-site security. Almost seven years later and despite the recent prosecutions, the five priceless paintings remain missing.

The chorus of the harem (former ‘Virgil’s Hall’) at the Bardo National Museum, Tunis Photo: Fleur Macdonald, 2015

In addition to the arguably more traditional threats of burglary and theft, modern museums must also consider terrorist attacks a ‘real and serious danger’. In March 2015 three gunmen attacked tourists and visitors at the Bardo National Museum in Tunisia, resulting in the death of 22 people. While security guards were present at the main gate, visitors and bags were not searched as standard, enabling the attackers to walk in carrying bags containing AK47 assault rifles, grenades and ammunition. In the wake of the Bardo Museum attack and the subsequent shooting at a beach in Sousse, the UK Foreign Office warned against all but essential travel to Tunisia. The annual number of British tourists visiting Tunisian beaches and archaeological sites subsequently fell by 90 per cent, devastating the local economy.

Closer to home, the indiscriminate terrorist attacks across Paris in November 2015 and in Nice in July 2016 have had a similar impact on French tourism. The French media estimates that €750m has been lost following the cancellation of trips by overseas travellers. French authorities are seeking to reassure visitors that measures are in place to counter terrorist attacks: such measures were tested in February this year, when a machete-wielding man was shot as he attempted to gain access to the Louvre Museum in Paris. The attacker was successfully brought down by specialist armed soldiers who patrol key French sites as part of Operation Sentinelle. Upon searching his bag authorities found several cans of spray paint which the attacker claimed he intended to use to deface artwork as part of a symbolic attack on France. Six days after the incident at the Louvre, French authorities announced that security around the Eiffel Tower will also be increased, with the addition of permanent bulletproof glass walls to better prevent vehicles and individuals from storming the site.

Cultural sites in the UK also monitor terrorist threat levels routinely as part of their wider risk assessments. Museum security departments maintain contact with law enforcement agencies and share intelligence across various community networks. Concerns were raised recently about the potential risk to so-called ‘soft targets’ like museums from terrorists using suitcases containing explosive devices. In January 2017, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was evacuated following a bomb scare: the following month, the Jewish Museum in London was evacuated after a bomb threat was called in. In both cases staff evacuated the sites quickly and safely. Surrounding roads were also closed in line with agreed protocol while officers searched the buildings. Thankfully no devices were found, and both museums were promptly reopened to the patient public.

In October 2016, the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) attributed a fall in visitor numbers at major UK museums, to fears of terrorism. ALVA director Bernard Donoghue identified the drop as ‘a central London phenomenon’, adding ‘…there is a perception that central London is not as secure as it used to be because of terrorism across Europe.’ Institutions were, however, quick to identify a range of other factors which could instead account for the reduction in visitors.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that museums and galleries, particularly those in major cities, are carefully monitoring the security situation and working with law enforcement to ensure that visitors feel safe and welcome. Many UK institutions have increased routine bag screening and banned visitors from bringing in or storing large pieces of luggage. Some sites have hired additional security, or repositioned security to have a greater front of house presence. Others are revising their training to better guide existing staff on how to identify and monitor anyone acting in an unusual manner.

Operating cultural heritage sites in the modern era is not without risk – but to reiterate the general advice offered in the wake of the Paris attacks, visitors should, much like the rest of us, remain ‘alert, but not alarmed’.

Alice Farren-Bradley is moderator of the Museum Security Network.

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