Museum Security: The Art of Securing Pricelessness

Museum security is a kind of art form unto itself. A way to all at once create safety and accessibility. To bring us as close as possible to inspiration while preventing miscreants from stealing it.

museum security: protective measures for artwork

The art of museum security is no less profound than some of the masterpieces hanging in the space that needs protecting. It makes sense out of a paradox. To make works of art difficult to steal or damage—while at the same time allowing a connection between the masterpiece and the beholder—requires generous amounts of planning, some cool technology and a little ingenuity. We found someone with experience in all three: Steven R. Keller, principal of his own museum security consultancy and former executive director of protection services at the Art Institute of Chicago. We asked Keller to show us how he'd secure a priceless painting if money were no object. The security program he designed is comprehensive; it not only protects the work itself, but also the room it hangs in and the museum as a whole.

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To give a sense of how in-depth Keller's museum security program would be, consider the hierarchy he'd put in place to secure the premises with surveillance, scanning and alarms: "First, I want to see everyone who walks in—with a good picture. And I want security checks of carry-ins there"—in other words, backpacks and purses. Second, he looks to service doors that aren't normally used. "I'd put a camera and an alarm there," he says, and then he'd install parcel controls to check the artwork and other stuff going through those service doors. "Finally, I'd button down the exteriors, doors and windows and grounds."

Staff security is next, since, as with any business, the inside job is the predominant threat. Keller would put in access controls with pass cards, and he'd create security clearance levels. And he'd perform background checks on all employees.

Click to the next page to see a graphic presentation of Keller's specific security plan for keeping this artwork safe from thieves, earthquakes and—perhaps the most challenging nemesis of all—the gaggle of 10-year-olds overtaking the museum on their fifth-grade field trip.

1) Small and wireless, vibration sensors placed behind a painting can detect the lightest fingertap. Multiple sensors can be customized—one as a backup, another to detect if someone tries to access the painting through the wall. A tripped alarm signals the control room (or a cell phone or pager), describes the problem, and can provide a map of the site and an electronic photo of the piece of art.

2) Many priceless works have inventory numbers written on the canvas back and recorded in a registrar's catalog. "In the event of a theft, you'll sometimes get 20 different calls from people claiming to have the piece and willing to return it for a price," Keller notes. "In one case, we leaked the wrong numbers on purpose to sort out the phony extortionists from the real one. Finally, someone called and said, 'You've got the wrong serial number.' We knew we had our guy." The catalogs keep data about a canvas's thread count, highly magnified photographs of a painting's details and other proof of authenticity.

3) To hang a piece of art, eye hooks on the back of the frame attach to "L" hooks on the museum wall. At the bottom center of the painting, a metal boiler plate screws into both the frame and the wall. You'd have to work pretty hard to wrench the painting away. On the West Coast, where earthquakes can torque paintings affixed in such a way, museums use interlocking connections that offer some give.

4) Glazing protects some paintings and is commonly used with objets d'art shown on pedestals. But it is used judiciously since artists and scholars prefer as little interference as possible when viewing the art. Keller likes nonglare glazing with static-free polycarbons, but notes he can't use it on some works (the ones with pastels, for instance) because it tends to suck the chalk off the surface of the artwork.

5) Environmental sensors for fire, temperature changes and other hazards can be used to complement theft-deterrent sensors. These devices are even more common for items on pedestals, but are used for paintings as well.

6) Around the edge of the room, a low rail or change in floor texture or height creates a border to keep people from getting too close to the artwork. "Purely psychological," Keller says. "It forces a person to enter a different space that, implicitly, they're not welcomed in."

7) Motion-detection devices beamed directly over the painting sound a chirping alarm (like a smoke detector) to startle the too-close observer and alert security.

8) Saturation motion detection is the most important technology used in any given exhibit space. Instead of focusing motion detection only on entrances and egresses, such as doors and air ducts, it's most practical to simply flood the room with motion detection. That creates very few "dead spots" for potential thieves to avoid sensors and helps deter "stay behinds": skulkers who come into the room with a group but remain when others leave.

Keller likes "overdesign": when any given person is touched by at least two motion detectors at one time. He also likes to mix infrared and microwave motion detection—since infrared can cause false alarms from heat, and microwave sometimes is triggered or disabled by the works of art themselves, such as metallic sculptures.

9) Closed-circuit TV cameras add another security layer beyond motion detection. Keller says he would put in a digitally enhanced closed-circuit TV system that triggers automatically. However, if funds are limited, cameras should go first at entry points, then in the galleries. Keller also says that the more precious the art, the more likely he would be to mix vendors and architectures. Anti-integration makes things difficult for the bad guys; it means they will have to break two systems instead of one.

10) Fire alarms, sprinklers and temperature controls are mandated controls in any exhibit space. Fire alarms, however, cannot seal off rooms, à la The Thomas Crown Affair. "The fire code would have something to say about that," Keller observes.

11) Keller likes to alarm windows and fasten them closed whenever possible. He puts break sensors on the glass, especially lower-level windows. As with CCTV, glass-break sensors are secondary to motion detection but still play a critical role, "not because it tells us a window was broken," Keller says, "but because it's independent of the security system during 'gray hours'": those after-close periods when a large staff is hanging a new exhibit. At such times, sectors of the building will have their security systems turned off.

12) Security guards are on alert during gray hours and are also a constant presence in the museum at all other hours. They must patrol briskly and "pay as much attention to fire exits as they do the art itself," Keller says. They also communicate with the security control center, which dispatches staff to suspicious situations. Along with uniformed guards, a plainclothes supervisor would be appointed to see that the security staff is managing the crisis properly.


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