Masterpieces and museum security

December 01, 2000 |

On March 18, 1990, two thieves in police uniforms slipped into Boston's Gardner Museum, and left later with a record $250 million in 13 valuable art treasures.

"We learned a number of things," said Steven R. Keller, a security design consultant based in Ormond Beach, Fla., "the most important of which involved the quality of the security control room and the need for a quality supervised phone line to the central station to carry alarm signals."

Part of the reason is that would-be thieves have access to the same technical advances underpinning today's PC- and Web-based security systems and the sophisticated wireless systems that are increasingly used in museums. "Can someone hack into the security system computer?" Keller asked rhetorically. "I'm sure someone can."

While the watershed event at the Gardner Museum and other recent high-profile heists of million-dollar artwork have given renewed impetus for better museum security, the biggest threat to these institutions remains fire, rather than burglars. According to a leading U.S. security consultant, the top five threats for cultural venues include:

  • Fire.Early detection and sound fire prevention are therefore a must for museum security plans.

  • Internal sources.Comprehensive employee screening and ongoing security can help prevent losses due to employee theft.

  • Sloppy handling and storage of valuable assets. The best museums have explicit protocols for managing inventory.

  • Poor system planning.Comprehensive planning, deployment and maintenance of electronic systems is a challenge but vital to secure museums.

  • Assets in transit.Loaned artwork and traveling exhibits are prime targets for theft. Museums need thorough systems for totally securing valuable assets in transit.

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