In 2013 I became the moderator of the Museum Security Network after its founder, Ton Cremers, the former Head of Security at the Rijksmuseum, retired. With the help of our correspondents in the USA and Africa, I review articles, press reports, and intelligence on museum security issues and circulate them to our members every day. Since I took over the role there hasn’t been a single day when there were no museum security issues on which to report; it often takes several hours to go through the last 24 hours’ worth of information on acts of vandalism, theft, and damage. But while Hollywood conveys the impression that museums need be afraid of only acrobatic millionaires and art-collecting Doctor No-style super villains, the reality is rather different and considerably less glamorous.
What then do we mean by ‘museum security’? This increasingly all-encompassing term essentially refers to the protection of cultural and historical artefacts and the publicly accessible sites that house them. While the number of security threats appears to be growing, museums face the difficult task of addressing these concerns on tight budgets and without making themselves significantly less accessible to visitors, or less enjoyable.
In order to mitigate and, wherever possible, prevent the various risks that may befall a museum, its collection, staff or visitors, modern-day museum security requires an adaptable, multilayered approach. This frequently involves the use of specialist technology and software in combination with specially trained security guards, and experienced gallery assistants. Museums, guided by industry standards and recommendations, are advised to carry out carefully considered and regularly updated risk assessments to ensure that they have adequate and proportionate security measures in place. Without this, security can suffer and institutions may struggle to meet key insurance requirements and be unable to secure high-profile loans for exhibitions.
When people ask me about the role of the Network, the question that crops up more than any other is: ‘Why does museum security matter?’ Fundamentally, it matters for the same reasons that museums matter: they educate and engage the public, promote our own cultural heritage and communities, and inform us about the history of other cultures in the world. In the UK we are lucky to have access to some of the greatest collections and institutions in the world and that such access is free. Over time, museums have also become great collecting houses – the ‘end user’ for objects that were commissioned, created, and bought and sold privately for centuries before finally going on permanent, public display. If you believe that these institutions and the artefacts they hold are important, it follows that you would also value the protection and preservation of such collections and our access to them. So what exactly is it that we need to protect museums from?
Terrorist attacks at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014 and at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia in 2015 left over 20 visitors and tourists dead, with dozens injured. It was therefore understandable when, in the immediate aftermath of the November Paris attacks, the Louvre and other important cultural sites were closed for several days before reopening with enhanced security measures. The destruction and looting of cultural sites in Mali, Syria, and Iraq (among others) has involved frequent attacks on museums by terrorist organisations intent on wiping out the cultural heritage and history of their alleged enemies. This has led to international outrage and condemnation from organisations such as UNESCO, as well as a general increase in security at museums worldwide. But while high-profile attacks attract significant press attention and understandably result in the review of security procedures at major national institutions, there are more commonplace risks to museum security, which need to be considered just as carefully.
As public spaces, museums derive significant revenue from their visitors, whether from entrance fees, special exhibitions, or purchases from the café and shop. Creating a safe, welcoming, and open environment, which encourages people to visit repeatedly, is therefore of primary concern. But ‘open access’ has to be carefully balanced with museum security. Ideally, the latter should be subtle, but ever present. Anyone who has visited the Louvre and stood in front of the Mona Lisa may be surprised at the amount of security surrounding the painting and the distance at which viewers are kept, despite its protective casing. However, when you consider that this priceless painting has been stolen, damaged in an acid attack, had a rock thrown at it, and a cup of tea poured over its case, it is perhaps more surprising that the Louvre has the work on public display at all, and that over eight million visitors a year admire Leonardo’s masterpiece.
Most institutions carry out regular risk assessments based on the importance and type of each exhibit, its location in the building, and how physically accessible it is when the museum is open, and when it is closed. They also need to take into account any recent trends or intelligence that may suggest that an item is more likely to be damaged, stolen, or attacked. Artefacts are then divided into security groups, from high- to low-risk, and the categories internally monitored to reflect changes in their status.
In 2011, museums and auction houses across the UK and Europe were warned to step up security for any rhino horns in their holdings and to remove them from public display where possible, and even to take images of them down from their websites. (The Natural History Museum in London replaced its rhino horns with fakes.) The warning came after over 20 thefts of horns and skulls by what was believed to be an organised criminal gang seeking to profit from the value of powdered rhino horn (twice the price of gold at the time) in the Chinese medicinal market.
In April 2012, the Oriental Museum in Durham and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge both had several pieces of valuable Chinese jade stolen in night-time raids. Later that same month, staff at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath who had been briefed on the increased risks to their collection, were able to prevent an attempted theft by getting to a secure location and alerting the police after thieves forced their way in to the museum during opening hours.
While museum security has increasingly moved away from depending on guards sitting in a specified spot to supervise an exhibit and its visitors, well-trained staff remain integral to the safety and security of cultural institutions. Now that visitor experience and engagement is more actively encouraged, security guards and gallery assistants are even better placed to identify and deter potentially problematic or criminal behaviour at the earliest stage; high-specification CCTV security systems and gallery control-rooms are only as effective as the staff monitoring and managing them. Regular maintenance of security systems and staff revision of security protocols in light of any temporary issues is also extremely important. In 2010, a lone thief broke in to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris at night, leaving with works by Matisse, Picasso, Léger, Braque, and Modigliani. Although the individual had been caught on the museum’s CCTV, the alarm had been malfunctioning for over a month and failed to go off. As a result the guards didn’t notice the broken window or the bare walls until long after the thief had left.
The careful placement and training of staff can also be extremely useful in combatting opportunistic thefts. For example, the recent thefts of Renaissance coins from the National Museum of Scotland and Roman coins from Chelmsford Museum took place during opening hours, but were not immediately noticed by staff.
Since museums are frequently housed in older buildings or those not designed with security in mind, it is important to consider the lines of sight available to personnel on the ground, and to CCTV cameras (where installed). If staff need to move around to oversee multiple areas, consideration should also be given to the amount of time this may leave certain areas out of view. It is for this reason that museums seeking to redesign their storage and exhibition spaces are increasingly looking for architects familiar with security concerns. Ground-floor access to key exhibits may be popular with visitors and glass-sided buildings may look impressive, but these factors should be weighed up against security and insurance concerns.
When museums carry out risk assessments and security audits, they should always ask themselves how many layers of security need to exist between the object and someone who may wish to harm or steal it. Picture alarms and bullet-proof glass protect exhibits from some risks, but not others. Staff who are trained in how to monitor and respond to threats also need to know what to do after a breach has occurred. The protocols and extensive in-house security departments at larger museums may be well equipped to deal with thefts and acts of vandalism, but smaller institutions, and the volunteers they rely upon, are often less familiar with how to identify and preserve a crime scene, collate, and circulate key details – and of how important it is to notify senior management or law enforcement as soon as possible without fear of being blamed.
The threats to museum security are unfortunately a far cry from what The Thomas Crown Affair would have us believe. The work may not sound exciting and security resources are often among the first hit by museum budget cuts. However, despite the myriad risks posed, and the difficult balancing act involved in meeting the expectations of visitors and management, the dedicated individuals and volunteers who work in museum security still have one crucial purpose, which is to protect the past for the benefit of everyone.