Museum Security 101
For The Press

Museum Security 101 for the Working Press

By Steve Keller

Museum Security Consultant

Steve Keller and Associates, Inc.

555 W. Granada Blvd. Suite G-4

Ormond Beach, FL 32174

(386) 673-5034

About the author

The author is President of the leading security consulting firm in North America dedicated exclusively to projects involving museums and other cultural institutions. He is formerly director of security for the Art institute of Chicago. In 2006 he was inducted into the American Association of Museum’s Centennial Honor Roll, which identified the 100 most influential people in the museum profession in the past 100 years.

Use of This Article

Please quote freely from this article for news background and attribute the quotes to Steve Keller.

How Do Museum Thefts Occur?

According to the FBI (and statistics vary with the person making the estimate) 85% of all museum thefts have some insider component. The thief may be an employee, a former employee, may be married to an employee, may be a contractor to the museum, etc. “That is a very high percentage but my experience has been that this statistic has some validity,” said Steve Keller.

The vast majority of thefts occur when the insider who has access to the stolen items simply “makes them disappear”. “Out of sight, out of mind” as they say. And so it is with items in storage.  Many people are not aware that most museums have more items in storage than they do on display. When items are in storage they may not be checked on as regularly as they are when they are on display in the gallery so they become more vulnerable to this type of theft.

“In one theft I was involved with, a Curator stole several items from storage then removed reference to them from the files. Had someone who knew they existed not been looking for them for study, over time, they would have just disappeared. He removed them from the building in his pocket and sold them to a pawn shop.”

Another employee thief was responsible for packing and shipping works of art. The fact that art is borrowed and loaned all the time so that visitors can enjoy works from another institution, some employees do nothing but build special crates custom made for specific pieces. One of these fellows made three fine looking crates, painted them red, white and blue using high gloss paint, and shipped them to himself. Lax security measures at the shipping dock permitted them to be removed without authorization from higher authority and the thief was able to destroy the shipping bill of lading, eliminating the paper trail.

Most thefts involve a breach of procedures or no procedures at all. The vast majority of all museum thefts could be eliminated if museums adopted the attitude “trust no one”. Every employee and every contractor should be subject to an examination by guards of their outgoing parcels. Visitors to the galleries should not be permitted to carry parcels large enough to conceal something that the museum displays. Controlling access to non-public areas of the building would also improve the situation. And hiring only honest people and keeping them honest through controls and video surveillance would resolve a great deal of the internal theft because many major thefts involving insiders could have been for seen with a background check of the employee.

But the most interesting thefts are those perpetrated by outsiders. These are the heists of Hollywood. In Europe recently, thieves climbed up a ladder to the roof and entered the museum via the skylight. The whole thing was videotaped on the security CCTV system. Nevertheless, they got away.

Most thefts from galleries occur because someone was not doing his or her part in securing the building. The most common contributing factor of theft from galleries during the hours that the museum is in operation is the absence of a guard or gallery attendant. This occurs most often when a museum assigns one guard to cover too much territory. Sometimes, someone calls in sick and there is no back up plan.

Even items in exhibit cases are not immune from theft. “One museum guard heard the sound of an electric drill and moved toward the sound only to find a man with a cordless electric drill trying to remove screws so he could open the case”, said Keller.  “When the guard approached the man, three women in provocative attire stepped in front of him to distract him while the man escaped.”

Skylights are a common entry point. While skylight robberies don’t occur all that often, over the decades skylights have been used in a number of major heists. In cities like New York where it is possible to move from the roof of one building to the roof of another, skylight entry is popular.

Another popular form of theft is the smash and grab where the thief breaks in, grabs what he wants, then runs out. Some thieves prefer to cause a distraction that pulls the guards off their post, make their move, then leave, If the item can be concealed and carried out the door hidden, they may try this. If not, they run for a fire exit door.

In one NY museum theft the guard stopped a woman who was pushing a stroller out the main entry doors. He asked to examine her stroller since a blanket covered everything. She became indignant saying that if he woke the baby he was going to have to feed and change it. The guard did not give in and removed the blanket to find a Greek bust concealed where the baby was supposed to be. In another theft in the Big Apple, a teenager inserted a coat hanger into a crack between glass on a case, swept a small gold coin from shelf to shelf until it fell into a cavity at the bottom of the case, Sure enough the coin fell to the floor where he swept it out with the coat hanger.

One concern of security is the stay behind theft. Museums usually have good motion detection that can detect someone who hides in, say, a restroom, then comes out after closing to steal when guards have left the galleries. But people do try this method and occasionally get away with it. One man in Denver stayed behind in a museum and actually hung his own painting on the wall and broke out. When police arrived, nothing was missing and it wasn’t until morning that curators noticed that the new painting had appeared.

How Do Museums Prevent These Thefts

There are two types of museums: those with adequate security and those without adequate security. Those with adequate security could still be victims of a major heist but it would likely be carried out with a much higher degree of sophistication or perhaps with brute force and violence.  Those without adequate security will continue to be easy marks.

What constitutes good security?  You can’t replace people in the galleries. The gallery attendant need not be a guard but a trained guard is far better than a gallery attendant. But even an attendant without formal security experience can do some good.  Several years ago, during the Reagan presidency, a man entered a San Francisco museum and threw paint on a masterpiece “to protest the Reagan economic policy”. A docent (a trained educator who gives tours) saw this, and knowing she could not physically intervene, yelled “Fire!”.  This caused help to arrive quickly.  Asked why she would yell “fire”, she said that no one would have come had she yelled “red paint!”

Night time museum thefts are best prevented by a secure building perimeter. Bars on windows help but they are unpopular with architects and museum directors. Window film that makes glass hurricane resistant is also a good deterrent and prevents smash and grab thefts and slows down burglars. Of course, alarms that detect someone as soon as they try to break in are best.

Nearly every museum uses volumetric motion detection on the interiors. Good security is that which saturates the collection bearing areas with detection making it impossible to move more than two steps without being detected. Motion detectors can “see” the infrared body heat we all give off and when a “target’ moves across the field of view, the temperature changes and is detected.

Other detectors detect impact on glass such as windows and skylights and some listen for the sound of breaking glass and alarm upon hearing that sonic frequency. Most museums use multiple types of detection in addition to sensors that know when doors are opened.  High value collections in exhibit cases are protected by sensors as sophisticated as accelerometers that can sense even the lightest touch.

The most significant advance in museum security technology is the digital CCTV system. Today, one guard can sit in a control room half a world away and monitor hundreds of cameras in a facility. He can remain in touch with guards in the galleries via radio and dispatch them as needed.  Digital CCTV has many features. The most important is its ability to detect movement in the area of an exhibit and notify the guard. This permits one guard to monitor large numbers of cameras and not miss suspect activity. He can be reading and the computer will alert him if there is something he needs to see.

CCTV can also be used to protect exhibits. As systems become more computer driven and more intelligent, they become more versatile. Cameras watch antique motorcycles and if anyone climbs aboard, the movement is immediately detected and the guard notified.  But how do you keep the reflection in the chrome fenders from being seen by the camera as movement?  Intelligent systems can be taught to ignore this type of movement and alarm only upon seeing other movements.

Steve Keller noted that he has designed several security systems in museums where guards carry iPods equipped with a wireless card that enables them to constantly receive wireless CCTV signals from cameras in his gallery. This enables him to be on one side of a wall and view activity on the other on the iPod. In the old days his only defense was to randomize his patrol route but today he can secretly watch a suspicious person without giving away his true capabilities.

While nighttime thefts are prevented with a good alarm system and daytime thefts with exhibit alarms, guards, and CCTV systems, the most vulnerable time of day to a museum is the period of time after alarms are turned off and visitors are admitted to the galleries. Guard coverage in galleries is often less than during normal daytime operations but staff, educators, contractors, custodians and others are active in the collection bearing areas.  The cost of guarding galleries during these hours and the corresponding hours at the end of the day after public closing but before alarms are activated is prohibitive on the budget of most non-profit institutions. So many museums are turning to highly complex and reliable object protection systems like Acuity-vct .

Within a few years contractors and staff will wear smart cards that are constantly tracked with their locations in the building stored to give investigators a lead when a problem does occur. If they leave the area for which they are authorized, security will be notified. In fact, the integration of systems enables us to call up to the nearest camera the location of the wandering contractor so he can be intercepted.

How Much Security is Enough?

That’s the impossible question. But the museum security industry’s experts got together some years ago and wrote a set of standards that define the minimum common denominator of security for all museums in North America. Not every museum has embraced this document called “The Recommended Guidelines for Museum Security” (formerly the Suggested Guidelines for Museum Security”). Those who fail to adopt these simple and straightforward steps do so at their own peril because once a theft has occurred the Press and other critics will check to see if any of the Guidelines were violated. Most of those who don’t conform to the Guidelines are smaller institutions but more and more larger museums are under budgetary pressures and have reduced staffing thus reducing their ability to enforce the provisions in the Guidelines.

In many recent thefts one need only perform a careful reading of this document to see what went wrong. For example, the Guidelines say that it shall not be possible to leave the museum without passing a Guard or activating an alarm. This means that all exterior penetrations to the building are to be alarmed or in the case of doors, staffed by a Guard.  Other of the 100+ provisions say things like all outgoing parcels shall be examined by a Guard. So if a theft occurs because something left the building undetected, one should look to see if any back doors, roof hatches, windows, etc. are not properly protected, are not protected during all hours, or whether exceptions are made for trusted staff, etc.  Add to this the requirement for key control and retrieval, alarm monitoring by guards, etc. and you can see how all of the provisions of the Guidelines work together to assure perfect security. When exceptions are made or resources are cut, security is predictably reduced.

Museum security is becoming more and more high tech. The security manager in a major museum had better have at least two courses in computer networking under his or her belt just to understand the technology since nearly every alarm, access control and CCTV system is nothing less than a complex computer working on a network. Nevertheless, physical security cannot be replaced by electronics and in fact electronic security poses its own risks.

Future thefts from museums will not occur at the point of a gun or by a thief who works undetected in an empty gallery.  In fact, in a couple of decades this type of theft will be very unlikely. The largest art heist in history, big enough to shock the world with its magnitude, has yet to occur but we are preparing for it.  The next major heist might well involve the theft of over a Billion dollars in collections. It might be perpetrated by someone who has defeated the computer network that carries alarm signals. Or, it might be defeated by the Information Technology manager himself who uses a back door and hidden password to give illegal commands to the security system computer then covers his tracks. Keller noted that this is the level that his firm currently works on, planning countermeasures for this type of crime, yet some of his clients are still unwilling to devote the resources needed to basic physical security. The problem is that museums all have limited resources and no one considers security that important if nothing bad has happened. Someone once said that security is always too much --until it is not enough, meaning that when nothing happens it is seen extravagant but when a problem develops, everyone second guesses the decision not to devote more resources to security. And in a museum setting there is the legitimate issue of convenience and academic freedom. We could put the originals in a vault never to be seen by anyone but the most expert of the experts and allow the public to see only reproductions but then what talented student would fail to grow as an artist or an expert when denied the ability to see subtle brushstrokes only appreciated when the eye touches the original work of art. With the ownership and display of art goes a risk and hanging them on walls is an even greater risk. Museums generally do well in interpreting their responsibility vs the risk they face.

As museums place their collections online for all to see, thieves become aware of where in the world the art really can be found and go there to steal it. The small museum in the middle of nowhere with a single masterpiece is at greater risk unless they invest in improved security because thieves take the path of least resistance and as it gets harder and harder to rob the major urban museum, they look elsewhere for their mark.

Museum security is one of the most interesting and challenging careers. Steve Keller noted that he tries to make his client museums just a bit more secure and intimidating than the museum down the block so that the bad guys go there and leave his clients alone. He realizes that as long as there is art, and gems, and gold, and other artifacts and as long as there are thieves, he will have a job.