Museums are complicated for security professionals. They must be open and welcoming to the public, but they often have quiet nooks and crannies where patrons sit and ponder the art and human endeavor on display. Museums acquire, conserve and exhibit extraordinarily rare pieces of art and antiquities, sometimes jewels, and all of them are worth more than a king’s ransom.
Usually, every couple of years, someone pulls off a major art theft. For example, two versions of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” were stolen: one from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway and another from Oslo’s National Gallery—but each were recovered. In 1990, however, fake mustaches were used in part; allowing thieves to enter Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum and, in broad daylight, three Rembrandts, five Degas sketches, a Vermeer, a Manet and a bronze eagle that topped a framed, Napoleon-era banner were removed. These pieces have never been recovered, although the museum continues to investigate and is offering a $5 million reward.
Even though headline-making thefts occur, it’s not for lack of resolve on the part of the security staff.
Securing Valuable Pieces of Art
All museums employ a variety of security precautions, as some thieves resort to diverting police forces with bombs, brandishing weapons during their assault or even tunneling into the building. While a bomb may be difficult to defeat, Steven R. Keller, a well-known security consultant for museums and libraries, said that the most basic solution comprises many layers of protection, including:
- Small and wireless vibration sensors. Used to detect the lightest touch, sensors can be customized—one used as a backup and another to detect if someone tries to access the painting through the wall. A tripped alarm signals the control room, a cell phone or pager and describes the problem, and can provide a map of the site and an electronic photo of the piece of art being tampered with.
- Inventory numbers. Many priceless works have these numbers written on the canvas back and recorded in a registrar’s catalog. Sometimes they are used to ferret out the real extortionists from the fakes, but they also keep data about a canvas’s thread count, highly-magnified photographs of a painting’s details and other proofs of authenticity.
- “L” hooks and metal boiler plates. Sometimes, the eye hooks on the back of the frame attach to “L” hooks on the museum wall. A painting also may have a metal boiler plate that screws into both the frame and the wall, making it quite difficult to wrench off the wall. But, of course, the canvas can then be cut from the frame, which renders it less valuable and even harder to fence on the black market
- A low rail or change in floor texture or height. Around the edge of museum rooms, this creates a border to keep people from getting too close to the artwork. “Purely psychological,” Keller said, “it forces a person to enter a different space that, implicitly, they’re not welcomed in.”
- Motion-detection devices. Beamed directly over a painting, these devices sound a chirping alarm like a smoke detector to startle the too-close observer and alert security. They are used liberally throughout a museum to create a dearth of “dead spots” for potential thieves as they try to avoid sensors. It also helps deter those who might come into the room with a group, but remain when others leave.
Also used liberally are CCTV systems, some of which are quite sophisticated while others are quite rudimentary.
“Museums, depending on their age and the types of artifacts they have, will use cameras as a deterrent as well as for the concealed viewing of patrons by security,”said Paul Such, vice president of sales for Europe at London-based Oncam Grandeye. “Many times, older PTZ cameras don’t provide images that hold up in court. With 360-degree technology, security staff can see everything from one camera inside one room.”
This technology runs constantly, and there is no need for 24-hour batteries. Plus, older and fixed cameras can only see one thing at a time, and require a multitude of cables, storage and more.
Security Upgrade at Scotland Gallery
Having opened in 1901, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is one of Scotland’s most popular and free destinations. It houses 22 themed galleries that display an astonishing 8,000 objects from Dutch masters to Van Gogh to collections of armor, and even Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross.”So, when it came time to upgrade the security capabilities of Glasgow’s gallery and museum, its head of security wanted state-of-the-art technology; however, at more than 100 years old, the biggest challenge was being able to apply new equipment into an aging building without ripping the walls apart.
“[With 360-degree technology,] installation becomes simpler and cheaper because it is quite difficult to run new cables in old buildings without moving walls,” said Such.
Kelvingrove, like many museums, has trouble spots. The south entrance has a long, narrow passageway, followed by two stairways on either side. The north entrance has the same layout but with the addition of a statue that is the occasional target of graffiti. There is also a gift shop.
Prior to upgrading, at least three or four cameras and their connecting cables were needed to see all this territory. Now, one 360-degree camera using dewarping software is placed at both the south and the north entrances, revealing everything with clarity. Each camera is discreet and replaces the ugliness and expense of having three to four cameras covering the same zones. The museum’s third camera covers the entire gift shop, protecting it from shoplifters.
Achieving Total Situational Awareness
Tom Gallacher, the museum’s head of security, said that total situational awareness is achieved with 360-degree technology because security can follow anyone across one camera instead of linking the view together with a number of them.
“We can see, for example, partners of a would-be criminal and can identify any behavior that happened before an incident,” Gallacher said. “If an incident occurs, we can review what happened, up-to-the-moment, in detail. This helps with the management of the museum’s security service and makes everything we do more efficient.”
Plus, for cash-strapped museums, the cost of ownership goes way down. Before 360-degree technology, there would commonly be one camera placed before each really expensive item. Now, only one camera is needed, and it sees all pieces of art simultaneously, making installation much simpler and less expensive. Sometimes, even alarms systems are not necessary because the new technology’s analytics replace that extra system. A 360-degree view also sees movement between rooms.
“Being unobtrusive is critical in a museum,” Such said. “With 360 degrees, a security operator can look at all the different paintings at the same time, making it much easier to monitor and track people. And, with its security analytics, any untoward activity is immediately spotted.”
This technology gives a real-time notification if something is stolen via instant messages or live, streaming video that can be zoomed in on with one’s fingertips and viewed on an iPhone or Android device. Being that the system is tied into all the other layers of protection, any alarm in a museum, such as a fire alarm or a sprinkler system malfunction, can trigger a video event.
There is also a marketing use, and museums are showing a great interest in the intelligence and analytics a 360-degree system can provide.“A complete solution can deliver total occupancy, how many people are in which areas and how long they stayed,”Such said. “It also allows for the management and safe movement of people, providing marketing information to discover which exhibits are most important to people.”
Despite using with this technology, basic background checks of personnel and bag checks of visitors remains critical.
“The easiest way to steal a precious artifact is through an inside job, so security personnel must be thoroughly vetted,” Such said. “They are the first line of defense, and they have to be aware of the entire layout, from the fire escapes to the valuable objects of art residing on the walls.”
When a professionally-trained and alert staff is combined with powerful technology, thieves have reasons to venture elsewhere.