Museum Security Gets More Like Airports

Art may be in the eye of the beholder, but if you can’t behold a work of art to begin with, what is the use of eyes? That’s the question art curators and security experts have been grappling with at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, for much of the past year.

And the answer right now is: no good at all. On August 22, 2004, armed thieves barged into the museum, grabbed two Edvard Munch masterpieces – "The Scream," an icon of emotional angst, and "The Madonna" – and sprinted to a waiting getaway car.  The heist closed the museum for ten months. And although authorities have arrested several suspects in the case, the paintings are still missing.

Reopened in June with new security measures, the Munch Museum now places every painting behind a wall of glass. And in what art critics say is an airport-like show of security, patrons who enter the building must pass through X-ray machines and metal detectors. (To see some of these features, go to the Norwegian news publication called Aftenposten.)

Apparently, the need to protect art from thieves easily trumps the convenience of patrons. To a degree, of course, this has always been the case. Museums have long employed security guards who patrol galleries, warning off people who get too close to a painting or sculpture. "The Mona Lisa" which was stolen in 1911 and recovered two years later, has been behind glass for years. (Go to The Louvre in Paris and click on the image of Da Vinci’s painting to see its location in Room 13 .) Masterpieces like the Mona Lisa are not the only museum pieces kept behind glass: fragile or extremely valuable objects have been glassed off for decades. These days, most people who want to put their hands on exhibits understand that they will find true happiness only at their city’s children’s museum.

Art critics who’ve dubbed the Oslo musuem "Fortress Munch" are lamenting a marked shift in the definition of "too close." But in this age of acute threats and risks, the experts who guided the Munch Museum’s decision-makers in a $6 million security overhaul are distinctlyunapologetic. "This is the price we have to pay," the museum’s director, Gunnar Sorensen, told The New York Times when the museum reopened.

After the thefts last year, Sorensen told the newspaper, "I was criticized because the museum was not strong and safe enough. We’ve now done everything we were advised to do, and you see the result of that."

The results are open to question, and not just from art lovers. Science writer Edward Dolnick, who wrote a book about the theft of another version of the "Scream," says in this article that the security measures are like subway rider searches in New York and airport security: they have more psychological than that actual risk management benefit. "The gains in security are dubious," he says. "The loss of enjoyment to artlovers is guaranteed."

Related links

The Art of Securing Pricelessness

Museum Heist

Image of "The Scream"

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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