Museum Security: How Managed Services and Technology Can Guard Our Heritage

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Without a proper security strategy, priceless artifacts may be vulnerable to theft, vandalism, and other threats

Since modern museums began opening approximately 200 years ago, they’ve been a target for thieves –buildings full of valuable or unique objects, with some of those items small enough fit into a pocket, inside a backpack, or in the back seat of a car.

From the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, to $500 million theft of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, museum heists have always held a place in the public imagination. But they shouldn’t hold a place in your museum’s history. No matter how small or how valuable your museum’s treasures, a combination of smart policies and new technologies can keep property safe from all kinds of threats.

Low-tech threats can pose the biggest dangers to museums

While museum heists are often depicted on film and television as high-tech affairs with months of planning, in many cases, nothing could be further from the truth. While some intensely plotted, high-tech robberies do occur, most museum thefts are decidedly low-tech in nature. Many criminals visit a museum and stay after hours, hiding in a closet or other concealed space, take their desired prize, and simply break a window to leave on their way out. Others, even bolder, take what they want during regular hours, concealing an item in a pocket or under a jacket. Some thieves impersonate police, repairmen, contractors, or even newly-hired employees to con their way into a museum during off hours or to gain access to otherwise restricted areas.

Criminals intending to steal from a museum often realize two things: First, the more complex their strategy, the more likely they are to fail, and second, the more advanced the tech they use, the more easily it can be tracked. Understanding these factors can help you develop a smarter security strategy that has a real chance of both deterring and detecting criminal activity in your museum.

Museum security protocols must work in alignment with the visitor experience

Unlike securing a standard business, there are multiple limitations to consider when developing an integrated security strategy for a museum, mainly arising from the fact that museum security must keep property safe while not distracting visitors from the exhibits themselves. Additionally, museum security features often need to be subtly integrated into the building without significant construction or renovation efforts, as many museums are historical landmarks in their own right.

Effective museum security protocols can prevent theft and other criminal activities without affecting visitor experiences

Luckily, there are several simple strategies that managers can implement to combat museum theft and secure valuable art or priceless historical items without negatively affecting a museum’s aesthetic qualities, historical integrity, or visitor experience. First, if a museum isn’t already doing so, it’s useful to conduct security checks on visitor’s bags on the way in and out of the museum to look for both suspicious objects (on the way in) and perhaps stolen museum property (on the way out).

Second, it’s essential to make sure that service doors, especially those that are rarely used, are effectively secured, as they often feature as part of the entrance or getaway plans of potential thieves. For example, two thieves, working in unison, may seek to trick museum security measures by having one criminal open up a service door for another, who may have tools or equipment to help him steal museum property. A potential thief could also use a service door to escape with stolen goods.

To prevent incidents like this from occurring, it’s a good idea to place surveillance cameras in all service door areas, as well as to consider installing electronic locks with either electronic keys or an access code. Additionally, make sure that all contractors and other officially-sanctioned workers that may be unknown to regular staff, such as scientific or historical experts or art or artifact restorers, are asked to show ID at regular intervals by museum security.

Prevent insider theft by taking proper precautions

No matter how secure your museum is against external threats, robberies may be aided, if not wholly committed by museum employees, making it essential to take preventative measures. First, do a thorough background check on all employees (especially security staff) both before hiring and at regular six-month to one-year checkpoints. Next, create various levels of security clearances so only a few trusted individuals have access to museum keys, storage rooms with valuable artifacts, alarm codes, and other sensitive data that could easily be misused. Finally, make sure to always be on the lookout for strange or suspicious behavior among staff, especially among new employees.

Motion detection, remote monitoring, intelligent video monitoring and other technologies may be able to help secure large museum areas an act as a force multiplier

While it’s important to understand that most robberies are somewhat low-tech, that doesn’t mean your museum shouldn’t employ the latest technology to prevent them. Vibration detectors can be placed behind paintings and displays to detect even the slightest of pressure changes – such as a thief attempting to gently remove a painting from a wall. Motion detection devices can be placed over a display, artifact, or painting and can sound an alarm when an invisible beam is broken.

Saturation motion detection systems can cover entire rooms with a network of both infrared and microwave motion detectors. Instead of just focusing on entrances and exits, a fully-saturated system leaves nearly no blind spots – making it nearly impossible to physically trick it without externally hacking or disabling the system itself.

Finally, remote monitoring and intelligent video analytics can vastly increase security. Even the best trained and most attentive personnel can have difficulty effectively reviewing more than a few feeds. Remote monitoring services use off-site staff to vigilantly monitor surveillance camera feeds at all hours of the day specified; if remote personnel spot a threat, they can either warn off an intruder via remote speakers or notify authorities and on-site staff.

These services ensure that a sufficient number of trained individuals are constantly and cost-effectively monitoring the appropriate number of feeds. And intelligent video analytics software can actually identify suspicious behavior and quickly alert staff to potential threats.

No matter what kind of museum you manage or operate, if it has valuables, it’s sure to be a target for thieves. And whether they’re members of an art theft ring or simply a disgruntled security guard with an extra set of keys, a simple mistake could cause significant losses. Fortunately, by following the strategies above, you can significantly decrease the risk of theft at your museum and safeguard art, artifacts, and unique historical treasures for generations to come.

To learn more about technology, strategies, and protocols that can help secure your museum from a variety of threats, contact POM technologies at 212.688.2767 or through our online form for a free consultation.