Agent of Deterioration: Thieves and Vandals

David Tremain

Table of Contents


Security is an important and necessary part of any cultural institution's risk management program to adequately protect its assets. Every year millions of dollars are lost due to the theft of objects from museums, art galleries, libraries, archives, and places of worship. Some of these incidents are premeditated; others are simply "crimes of opportunity." Most could have been prevented had there been an effective security program with good controls in place. Another ongoing problem is wilful damage caused by vandalism and graffiti to artworks, historic sites, and buildings.

This section will introduce security risk management based mainly on concepts developed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Government of Canada Security Policy (GSP). While they may vary from those used in preservation, they are well established in the field of security and would be recognized by any security officer working in a museum. The first concept is Threat and Risk Assessment (TRA) that will help you determine new security measures required (RCMP 2000). For assessing risk, security measures in place must also be taken into account. These measures are commonly grouped around the concept of Protect, Detect, and Response (RCMP 2004). Protect includes the Avoid (Deter) and Block that are used in other sections of the resource . An additional section on Recover has been added even though it is not generally included in the standard safeguard approach. Zoning is frequently used in security where a building is organized into different defensible spaces: from Public Zone to High Security Zone (RCMP 2005). Each zone will have different levels of Protect, Detect, and Response according to the vulnerability of the assets and the access required. For reasons of practicality, the Security Zone concept has been incorporated in the section Protect.

Threat and Risk Assessment (TRA)

Also referred to simply as the Risk Assessment, this assessment is composed of four steps: identify the asset; identify the threats; identify the risks; and recommend security measures. This approach is similar to any generic risk assessment approach.

  1. Identify the asset: The collection

    Ideally, everything that belongs to a collection should have the best level of protection, but in the real world that is often not the case. The most important or valuable items in the collection should be given the greatest attention. Global vulnerability of the collection can be assessed; however, for optimal performance, it is better to identify which objects or parts of the collection are more vulnerable to thieves and vandals. Some of these items may also be small and, consequently, easily portable, which, if not properly protected, will be attractive items to thieves because of their high resale value, ease of trading on the black market, or because it is the missing item to complete a set. Other items may be controversial — a religious icon or an item having some other significance — or the theft may be attractive just to prove that it can be done.

  2. Identify the threats

    Once you know what it is you want to protect, you will then need to determine what it is you want to protect your assets from (the threat). Identify the exposure of the asset(s) for each identified threat.

Threats affecting an institution's security

There are two primary threats that can affect an institution's security: theft and vandalism.


Theft is the opportunistic, willful, or premeditated illegal removal of an asset. Most thefts from museums tend to be isolated and not done by professionals, where, on the spur of the moment, the thief — a visitor, a member of a school party, someone who is mentally unstable, or has a grudge against the museum — seizes the opportunity to steal something that is readily available or unprotected. The loss of many of these items, particularly those of lesser importance, tends not to be well publicized. However, the media has popularized the more spectacular international cases, such as the theft of The Scream and Madonna in Oslo, Norway, in . In Canada in early , the Montreal Museum of Fine Art disabled its alarm system in order to carry out roof repairs. On Labour Day, armed thieves seized on this lapse in security, entered the museum through a skylight, tied up the security guards, and stole 17 paintings from the museum's European collection. One painting was Rembrandt's Landscape with Cottages. Even today, this is still considered to be the most significant Canadian art crime and the second most valuable North American art crime.

Unfortunately, there is very little data publicly available in Canada to indicate just how widespread a problem theft in museums really is. Most thefts from museums and galleries in recent years in Canada have not been "big ticket" items, but small, portable items, such as the ivory miniatures belonging to Canadian art collector Ken Thomson stolen from the Art Gallery of Ontario in (Vignette 1); a pistol from the new Canadian War Museum in , before it opened (subsequently returned a day or two later); two First Nations jackets stolen from the Perth Museum in ; antique quilts, medals, and a silver watch stolen from the North Lanark Regional Museum in , some of which have now been returned; and jewelled slippers and jewellery from the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto in . An exception was when two cannons were stolen during the night from Fort Beauséjour, New Brunswick, in , neither of which was small, or easily portable!

Most of the reported incidents of internal thefts in museums and libraries in recent years have not been in Canadian institutions; however, this does not mean that internal theft is not a problem in Canada. It may be that Canadian cultural institutions do not wish to attract adverse publicity or higher insurance premiums, or that the story is not newsworthy. Staff and researchers have ready and easy access to collections, and while at first these thefts may go unnoticed, be isolated and opportunistic, over time as these losses accumulate and become apparent, a pattern emerges that the threat must have come from within, was systematic and, therefore, premeditated. Many of these items may end up in private collections or put up for sale on the Internet. The theft of 221 religious icons, jewellery, and other precious items from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in , involved employees over several years. In , the British Library reported that 8,000 books had gone missing since it moved to its new premises in ; however, staff claimed that the books may have been mis-shelved or wrongly catalogued — which emphasizes the need for good cataloguing and auditing of collections. Suffice to say, that for every theft that becomes public knowledge, there are probably many more that are not reported.


Vandalism is the wilful or premeditated inflicting of damage to an asset, which may include destruction or disfigurement. Very few acts of vandalism turn out to be premeditated; most are opportunistic, again carried out by visitors, by mentally unstable visitors, or by visitors under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In the United States in , about 40% of vandalism arrests were males below the age of 18. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports that the juvenile arrest rate peaked at age 16. Within the heritage field, historically, there have been cases where paintings or statues have been targeted for deliberate damage to make a political point by activists and protestors, such as the attack with a hatchet by a militant suffragette on Velasquez's painting The Toilet of Venus, known as the Rokeby Venus, at the National Gallery in London in to draw attention to women being denied the vote. Others are committed by deranged people, such as when The Night Watch by Rembrandt was attacked with a knife in . Large pieces of canvas were lying on the floor after a mentally disturbed patient cut the painting. In , a man with an acid spray attacked the same painting. The acid had only penetrated the varnish layer of the painting. Unfortunately, there is still some visible evidence of the previous damage by the knife used in the attack. Other examples of vandalism can be found in Vignette 2.

Outside vandalism is also a serious problem. In the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery in Montreal, the third largest cemetery in North America, hundreds of sculptures were stolen and vandalized in summer (Gravenor ). Some vandalism to places of worship (as well as arson to churches and synagogues) and cemeteries has been the result of "hate crimes" against ethnic or religious communities.

  1. Assess the risks

    Evaluate the security measures in place for preventing threats from occurring by carrying out a risk assessment.

  2. Recommend security measures

    Based on the evaluation of the risk assessment, if current measures are found to be inadequate then new or additional measures will need to be implemented to provide effective safeguards.

    High-profile, highly valuable items will require a higher level of protection because of their status, but at greatest risk may be portable items, which may be the subject of an opportunistic, rather than premeditated act.

    When a museum stages an exhibition containing controversial exhibits, or those from certain countries, or hosts a state banquet or other function for visiting dignitaries, or are near other buildings that may be targeted for demonstrations or an attack, the institution will need to apply more stringent measures to enhance its security specifically for those circumstances. Some world cultural and historic icons may also be considered to be targets by terrorists.

Control Strategy: Protect, Detect, Response, and Recover

The primary goal of the control strategy is to deter or block potential thefts or acts of vandalism from occurring. If the building is well secured with good physical and psychological barriers (blocking), has good detection monitors, and a fast response, most of these actions will be deterred. These barriers should also create a means of delaying the thief from escaping with the asset. If Detect and Response fail, the last goal is to Recover the missing objects.

It is important that the overall concept of Protect, Detect, and Response is supported by a security policy.


Zoning approach

A common integrated approach to minimize the risk of threats in museums and any other cultural institution is to design the site, building, and its compartments as a series of defensible spaces referred as zones. From outside to inside, protection is increased while usually restricting access to visitors and staff. See Figure 1 as an example of zones in a museum. The zones are designed using the strategies of Protect, Detect, and Response according to the function of the zone, the level of security required, and the resources available. Limited access of personnel to some zones will reduce the risk of opportunistic threat from staff. Table 1 shows the five typical zones in museums. Some control measures (Protect and Detect), will be proposed below for each of those zones. More information on control measures for the different zones can be found in RCMP ( and ).

Example of chart displaying security zones, contact switches, motion detectors, and intrusion alarm system inputs.
Figure 1. Security zones, CS: contact switches, MD: motion detectors, and 1 – 15: intrusion alarm system inputs. It should be noted that while the RCMP (and this section) follows the Government of Canada Security Policy (GSP) in determining what should be covered under each zone, the arrangements for a museum or art gallery tend to be somewhat different. The exhibit or display space is generally regarded as an operational zone because access to it is controlled.

Security zoning

Public Zone

  • Exterior concourse
  • Public parking
  • Foyer, lobby
  • Cafeteria
  • Shops
  • Auditorium/ lecture rooms

Reception Zone

  • Visitors, staff, and vehicle entrances

Operations Zone

  • Exhibition areas, study rooms
  • Boardroom, administration, general office areas
  • Collection packing and unpacking areas
  • Loading bay: shipping and receiving
  • Mailrooms
  • Workshops, preparation area
  • Telephone and hydro room
  • Maintenance rooms, furnace/ environmental control room

Security Zone

  • Conservation laboratories
  • Managerial offices that display collection items
  • Photographic studio
  • Overnight collection storage
  • Money, records, or any attractive item storage

High-Security Zone

  • Permanent and temporary storage vault
  • Security operations control room
  • Server room

Public Zone

The Public zones are areas surrounding or forming part of the facility to which the public has access. Cafeteria, shops, and auditorium are usually considered a Public Zone even if visitors must walk through a Reception Zone to enter those locations. In this zone, the safety features related to the building perimeter will be also included.


The choice of site for new buildings should be carefully considered. Buildings located in an isolated area or a high crime rate area are likely to be at a higher risk.

Many of the risks to an existing building can be avoided or mitigated, starting with the landscape surrounding it. It should not provide cover for intruders, but provide an unobstructed line of sight of any problem areas (i.e. allowing surveillance by security staff or cameras). Institutional property should be marked with signs, landscaping, or fencing. To ensure a full clear line of sight year-round, tree branches should be trimmed 1.5 meters (m) from the ground, and hedges should be no higher than 0.4 m. Trees should be at least 6 m away from the building, otherwise the roof access should be monitored for intrusion. This also helps prevent rodents and other pests from entering (section on Pests).

Car parks should be well lit. Encourage all staff and visitors to lock their vehicles and secure valuables in the trunk to deter thieves. Thieves may climb on vehicles to access the building; therefore, all vehicles should be parked away from the building. This also can help mitigate the effects of car bombs, and can prevent thieves from concealing themselves. Ensure that no emergency exits are blocked at any time by parked vehicles.

Ideally there should be exterior security lighting above all entrances and exits. This lighting should be protected from vandalism by being enclosed in a vandal-proof casing. The security lighting should also have sufficient light intensity to illuminate the surrounding area and entrances including all emergency exits and loading bays.

Perimeter of building

The perimeter of the building is often the first defensible space for the museum where access is possible only through the Reception Zone. The structure of the building, external doors, windows, and Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system ducts must be reinforced, if possible, using heavy-duty commercial hardware and have an adequate detection system. Figure 2 summarizes protection for a small-size museum.

Example of small size museum.
Figure 2. Example of security for a small-size museum.

The materials used in constructing a building will also play a role in how resistant it is to penetration. A solid brick or concrete structure will be more secure than a wooden structure. Ensure that the building is in a good state of repair at all times. Access points such as doors and windows that are in concealed areas, open, or are easily broken or removed, can be attractive to criminals; therefore, ensure that all doors and windows are closed and locked at the end of the day. More details on door hardware can be found in Kelly (1998).

Windows within 3 m from grade require reinforcing with window bars, security glazing, or window film for extra security against penetration. If they can be opened, locks, magnetic contacts, and near-by glass-break detectors should be installed.
The rooftop mechanical room, skylights, and vents should be secured and alarmed against intrusion. Ladders and overhanging branches from adjacent trees, that may assist access, should be removed.

HVAC ducts and vents, which exceed 930 cm2 in cross-sectional area (unless the smallest dimension is not more than 150 millimeter (mm)), should have security screens, especially if they are located at less than 3 m above the ground or located at the roof.

During construction or renovation, a building is much more vulnerable to penetration. Scaffolding around a building provides an easy point of access for the would-be thief. The museum must provide additional perimeter security (i.e. security guards) and not allow contractors into secure areas unsupervised.

Reception Zone

The Reception Zone is an area where information may be provided or obtained and where access by staff, visitors, contractors, etc. into an operational zone or a security zone can be controlled. Access may be limited to specific times of day or for specific reasons. This zone is set up as a base from which secure zones are developed. Staff the control point with personnel who are usually responsible for controlling access to the Operations and other Security zones, by issuing passes and keys, providing general information, responding to telephone requests, monitoring the fire alarm panel, monitoring the closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) surveillance system, monitoring traffic within the Public Zone, and monitoring the security portable radio network. A panic button hidden behind the counter may also be useful.

Visitor entrance

Minimal: There should be a person assigned to supervise traffic flow (i.e. receptionist, interpretive staff, volunteer, or docent) who is trained to follow established access control procedures (i.e. contact information for emergencies).

Optimal: There should be at least one security guard to carry out the above duties. In addition, this may also require using barriers, turnstiles, or revolving doors to control traffic flow.

More and more in Europe and in the United States, public places such as museums and libraries are using metal detection to screen visitors.

Staff entrance

There should be one person keeping a record of staff access during and after opening hours using a sign-in sheet or electronic tracking system for staff access (i.e. card swipe or proximity card). In small museums and historic houses, this may be at the front desk, while in larger, national museums, there is usually a separate staff entrance.

Loading bay

The loading bay is considered to be an Operations Zone due to the activities that must be supervised. The loading bay may have its own reception desk; otherwise, a centralized reception desk can control and monitor the access at distance.

Operations Zone

Access to this zone is well controlled either by the Reception Zone or by dedicated measures such as guards, monitors, or key access. Exhibit areas are Operations zones accessible to the public during open hours accompanied by additional security measures, such as more guards on post. In this way, the exhibition areas become temporary, well-protected Public zones. The remainder of the time, they are locked down and all visitors or contractors are escorted. The study room is also an Operations Zone where visitors are closely monitored. The other Operations zones are usually non-public access. Some of those areas may have objects present for short-term purposes, such as a photographic studio, workshop, or preparation and packing areas. Areas such as offices, boardroom, and maintenance rooms are Operations zones and may be accessible to most staff. Contractors and visitors are usually escorted.

Exhibit area(s)

Display areas are particularly vulnerable where no security guard or staff member is present, such as in some smaller community museums; when barriers and surveillance are insufficient or non-existent; or when small and/or unsecured items are displayed near exits or windows.

Open displays where exhibits on free-standing plinths, bookcases (e.g. in an historic house), pictures hanging on walls, or outdoor exhibits (i.e. on a campus or on the grounds of a museum or art gallery) present problems if they are not properly secured, wired to an alarm system, or if barriers or proximity alarms are not installed to prevent visitors from coming too close.

There are a number of ways to protect objects on display. The easiest and cheapest are by using:

Minimal: Stationing guards or volunteers throughout the building, particularly where vulnerable objects are located; installing psychological barriers such as cords, signs, raised platforms, etc. to deter people from coming too close to exhibits.

Optimal: Installing monitored passive infrared motion detectors (PIR), proximity alarms, and other surveillance systems in display areas at night (all of which may be combined with barriers); and firmly attaching security hardware to frames hanging on walls, and to exhibits on plinths or in display cases.

Additional security for loaned exhibits, exhibit items of particular value, or exhibits that are considered controversial should be established. As well, security staff should politely warn visitors not to get too close to exhibits. This will strengthen security even further. When installing a new exhibit, ensure that, if the configuration of temporary partition walls changes with each display, the exhibit space is fully protected by rearranging security devices, such as PIRs or CCTV, so that their field of vision is not obstructed, or "blind spots" are created. This work should only be carried out by a licensed security professional. Arrange displays so that there are no areas where people can conceal themselves.

Display cases

Display cases are another defensible space level in the Operations Zone. They require protection with security screws, locks, and, in special circumstances, alarms. Display cases, if not properly constructed, or unglazed framed artworks are often the weakest links in the security of a museum or art gallery, given that intrusion alarm devices are turned off during opening hours, and may be the only means of preventing an item from being damaged or stolen.

For display cases, use polycarbonate or acrylic at least 10 mm thick (d in.). If glass must be used, it should be shatterproof. Many products available will withstand high impact from sledgehammers, baseball bats, or even some firearms, depending on the structure of the display case. Protective plastic films, normally used on windows, are now available that are also explosion-proof. To secure display cases, always use:


  • Non-removable, tamper-proof security screws, locks, brackets, and hanging devices that can only be loosened or removed by using a customized implement.

Optimal: For those items that require additional protection, use:

  • alarmed pressure pads around/in front of cases, or on pedestals displaying valuable objects; and/or
  • glass-break sensors in display cases housing valuable items;
  • proximity alarms referred to as EMC units (electromagnetic capacitance) consisting of plates built into the walls (of display rooms), or attached to objects. When someone comes too close or tries to remove a painting, an alarm (which can be silent) goes off. The alarm can also be linked into CCTV systems. These alarms, working off a radio frequency of 25 Khz, can be strips on windows, on plinths for sculptures, or floor electrodes. They can also be triggered by rapid changes in relative humidity. Because of the force field created, they are not recommended for pastels and other friable media; and
  • radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs). The RFID tag can be attached to or implanted in the item and tracked using a radio frequency. There is no data currently available regarding their practicality on museum artifacts because few institutions in North America have installed them; although, they are gaining prominence in Europe.

Check display cases at the end of the day to ensure they have not been tampered with. Keep cabinets or cupboards in historic houses locked at all times.

Study rooms

Researchers and members of the public should never be left alone or allowed to roam unescorted. Ensure that doors to these areas are kept locked at all times when not in use. Any entry into a restricted area, whether by an authorized member of staff or other persons should be carefully controlled and accurate records kept both on-and off-site either using a sign-in sheet, key control, or card access system.

General office areas

Doors should be lockable using security lock hardware. If there are windows at ground level, install either motion sensors (PIRs) and/or glass-break detectors, or apply security window film. Safes or cabinets housing money or confidential files within these offices should be kept locked when the occupant leaves the room.

Loading bay (shipping/receiving)

Minimal: A dedicated person should control the door during opening hours, with no one allowed access after open hours. All deliveries should be received in this area. Access to these areas should be registered; exposed hinges of the doors must have non-removable pins or be modified to prevent hinge pin removal; area should be supervised by one person; area should have metal doors and deadbolt lock.

Optimal: As above, but with monitoring 24–7. There should also be a CCTV camera trained on the door and an intercom system.

Maintenance rooms, janitorial supplies

Doors should be lockable using security lock hardware.

Telephone rooms, hydro room, furnace/environmental control room

Doors should be lockable using security lock hardware. Access by authorized persons to these areas should be registered; exposed hinges of the doors must have non-removable pins or be modified to prevent hinge pin removal; area should be supervised by one person; area should have metal doors and deadbolt lock. There should also be a partial key control (not audited).

Security zones

Security Zones are areas accessible only to authorized personnel; visitors and contractors must be escorted. The zones are accessible through the Operations Zone or sometimes directly through the Reception Zone. Security zones include areas where collections are stored temporarily or permanently or where any high-value assets are present. Some institutions may have a superior level of security referred as a High Security Zone. A High Security Zone is one that requires stricter access control than regular Security zones. The overall integrity of the museum's security would be at risk if one of these zones were infiltrated by non-authorized or non-escorted persons.

Permanent storage vault, temporary storage vault, overnight collection storage

Minimal: Doors should be lockable using security lock hardware. Locks should be keyed separately. The doors should be metal; internal walls should be reinforced (slab-to-slab construction). Access to these areas should be registered and restricted only to those who require access in order to do their work; exposed door hinges must have non-removable pins or be modified to prevent hinge pin removal.

Optimal: Install a PIR and a CCTV camera trained on the door.

Conservation laboratory, offices with objects, and photographic studio

Valuable items are not generally stored in this area permanently, but they may need to remain overnight or for several days or even several months. Access should be restricted to authorized persons only. Doors should be lockable using security lock hardware. Depending on where the room is located within the building, it may require a motion sensor.

Server room

Due to highly valuable data and the dependency of institutions and staff on computer technology, the server room is sometimes classified as a High Security Zone. Personal computers and servers may contain very important data related to the collection, such as provenance information or value, the loss of which may have major consequences for the significance of some objects. Access to the server room is typically limited to Information Technology staff. More information on safeguards for server rooms can be found at RCMP ().

Money and records storage

Doors should be lockable using security lock hardware. Safes or cabinets housing money or confidential files in this area should be kept locked when the occupant leaves the room. Files should be stored according to their security classification. Depending on where the room is located in the building, a motion sensor may be required. Ideally, rooms housing classified files should be internal, with no external walls or windows. The door should be metal; internal walls should be reinforced (slab-to-slab construction). Access should be restricted to authorized persons only.

Security control room

Security control rooms in medium- to large-size museums and galleries are frequently located away from public areas and require a card access or a keypad to access them. They should be kept locked at all times. These rooms should house a locked key press for storing and issuing all keys and passes. Doors should be lockable using security lock hardware. Locks should be keyed separately. As money and records storage doors should be, the doors should be metal and internal walls should be reinforced (slab-to-slab construction). Access to these areas should be registered. Exposed door hinges must have non-removable pins or be modified to prevent hinge pin removal. When the security desk is at reception, it may not be regarded as being entirely within a Security Zone.

Building access control

Allowing access to a given area will depend on the on the type of Security Zone. Access control ensures that visitors and staff are able to enter and leave the building or site in a controlled way; provides a safe environment; and provides levels of access to collections and facilities to staff and the public. Allowing access also means controlling keys and identity cards. Un-logged key distribution or a lack of ID cards or passes make unauthorized entry easy.


Early detection should be a major consideration. It enables responders (police, security, staff) to mitigate the effects of an incident. Presence of detection measures and their activation can deter adverse actions. There are four distinct steps to detection:

  • Notice the event.
  • Convey information regarding the event to an analysis centre (i.e. security control room, monitoring centre).
  • Analyze the information received.
  • Evaluate if the event is unauthorized, then initiate intervention.

Each security system should be designed to have built-in redundancy so that should one type of device fail, the other devices will automatically take over. Installation, maintenance, and monitoring of the system should be carried out by a reputable, certified security company (i.e. a member of the Canadian Security Association (CANASA), who can also advise on the best locations for individual devices to be installed). These systems should be Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or Underwriters' Laboratory of Canada (ULC ) or Underwriters' Laboratory (UL) (USA) approved, or other equivalents. As well, the system should be hard-wired into a 24-hour monitoring service, be it police, fire department, emergency dispatch service, or commercial security company. For any security system to function under emergency conditions, there must be an alternative source of power (emergency generators) or an uninterrupted power supply (UPS). In the event of a major power failure, most security systems have only enough battery power to support them for 6 to 8 hours.


Most security systems will incorporate magnetic contact switches on doors and windows, glass- break sensors, and various types of verified, PIRs. These motion detectors can function differently for walls (curtain type), as well as have wide-angle and long-range capabilities. Other types frequently used are active infrared detectors (sometimes referred to as photoelectric beams) consisting of separate transmitters and receivers; adaptive radar; ultrasonic; and dual technology detectors employing both passive infrared and microwaves. It is generally recommended that all motion sensors be verified at least twice a year by conducting a "walkabout" in the area where they are installed to ensure they are all working. Some security companies recommend once a month, while some museums claim to do this every night, and some systems will verify on a continuous basis.

Closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV)

There is sometimes a tendency to over rely on CCTV as a substitute for security staff within an institution. If CCTV cameras are to be installed throughout a museum or gallery, or in high-risk areas, such as loading bays, vaults, museum shops, or site perimeter, they must be monitored in real time by a receptionist or guard who can react to an incident; otherwise, CCTV will only provide a record of the incident — which may be useful in an investigation, but will not necessarily prevent the incident from occurring. In reality, monitoring does not always occur in real time — cameras may or may not be recording, and security guards will not be viewing their monitors on an on-going basis. CCTV cameras are capable of monitoring in black-and-white or colour; and in infrared for night viewing capability (especially outside) using wide-angle or standard lenses. They can also have a motion analysis capability, real time or time delay, or remote monitoring capability linked to a personal computer.

Two examples of robbery in museums having CCTV in place can be found in Vignette 1.

On-site security staff

The installation of security equipment and devices can lead to a false sense of security, and are no substitute for trained security staff present in the public areas. Having an on-site security presence can deter the would-be thief or vandal. However, in smaller institutions and those with limited budgets, it may be unrealistic to provide security guards on a 24–7 basis. Staff, volunteers, or docents can provide "passive security" during opening hours, either at reception or periodically patrolling the building(s), and calling the police to deal with any problems that may arise. However, training in security should be provided to any member of staff having to fulfill that role.


While much effort may be required to prevent a criminal act by using means to Avoid or Block it, the incident may still be prevented if there is a quick response once the alarm system has been activated. However, it is not expected that a small- or medium-size museum will have the qualified staff to arrest a thief or vandal in the act of committing a crime. The safety and security of the staff is the main priority. In larger museums, security guards must have received instructions as part of their ongoing training regarding what they can and cannot do legally in terms of apprehending a thief or vandal, or someone simply being a nuisance (e.g. making a citizen's arrest, physical contact, restraint, dealing with difficult people, etc.).

When an alarm sounds, security staff will be directed to the area where the incident has occurred and, if necessary, summon the police. They should first secure the area and restrict access to only those needing to be there. If an incident is in progress, security staff should not attempt to restrain a thief if the person is violent or armed. At all times, everyone should try to remain calm and co-operate with whatever the thief demands. Anyone witnessing the incident should try to memorize as much about the perpetrator as possible, such as:

  • height and build
  • colour of hair and eyes
  • facial features
  • clothing – what was he wearing?
  • how he spoke/what he said – did he have an accent?
  • whether he was armed or whether there were any accomplices

This information will be useful to the police and support visual evidence from CCTV cameras.

Immediately after the incident, a full review of the institution's security (to include policies, practices, procedures, and equipment) will be required. This may include recommending that upgrading security devices and enhancing security procedures be implemented.

If an item has been damaged, or a painting cut from a frame, nothing should be touched until the police and conservators (if in place) have been able to collect physical evidence, fragments, etc. Nor should anything be touched if a break-in has been discovered after-hours (such as locks being forced, windows broken, etc.).


Stolen objects must be reported to the police immediately. Documentation is very important. A full description of the objects, accompanied by photographs and a condition report, if available, should be provided to the police. ICOM's CIDOC group (International Committee for Documentation) has developed guidelines for this. Unfortunately, the rate of recovery is generally low (less than 10 –15%) after about the first two to three weeks, and may involve protracted police investigations and legal procedures, maybe even repatriation. Paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in have not been recovered, but on the positive side, the Goya painting Children with a Cart stolen while in transit between the Toledo Museum in Ohio and the Guggenheim in New York City in was recovered by the FBI after only a couple of weeks.

Recovery will also require that a full review of the institution's security (to include policies, practices, procedures, and equipment) take place immediately after the incident, with recommendations to possibly upgrade security devices and enhance security procedures. It may be that the alleged missing item has actually been "displaced" not stolen, owing to poor record-keeping or storage practices.

Security Policy

In addition to physical hardware and systems, all institutions should have a security policy covering all aspects of security. It should not simply be a series of "post orders" for security guards. These should include:

  1. Access control/Key control:Implement a key control policy, and enforce it. Ensure that:
    • only those persons requiring keys are issued with them;
    • keys are a type that cannot be duplicated without permission; and
    • all keys are returned at the end of a person's employment.
  2. Building security: Other issues relating to building security, such as bag policy – whether bags are allowed into exhibit spaces, size, type, umbrellas, etc.
  3. Duties of security guards: Often referred to as "post orders." These should outline who is assigned to where, how often patrols should be carried out, what to do in specific situations, etc.
  4. Security screening: Employers normally require that all employees (full-time, part-time, and volunteers) undergo a mandatory background check as a prerequisite of the job, which will include a credit check and criminal background check.
  5. Emergency preparedness and response: Some procedures may already be included in security guards' post orders, while reference should be made to an emergency response plan and/or business continuity plan.
  6. Camera policy: Whether cameras or other photographic equipment should be allowed into the exhibit space and restrictions on what can/cannot be photographed, use of flash, etc. This policy should also address lighting equipment used by contract photographers as well as film and TV crews.
  7. Procedures for dealing with film/TV crews:Many institutions are now being used as sets for TV shows, films, and commercials. Guidelines should be prepared to cover which areas are off limits, what can be handled or used, how a track for camera dollies should be laid and where, the use of additional lighting, garbage disposal, etc.
  8. Extra-curricular activities: Use of premises after-hours by other organizations (i.e. evening classes, wedding receptions, etc.).
  9. Construction: Including renovation and maintenance, to include contractors' access to restricted areas, supervision of contractors, use of welding equipment, whether contractors need to be security screened, temporary disabling of alarm systems (security, fire).
  10. Audit curator collection: To discourage internal theft and to assess which objects might be missing, it is recommended that a collection audit (such as 1% of the collection) be carried out every 5 years, or collection from a site, building, or part of the collection be audited every 10 years.

More information on security policies and guidelines can be found in the American Library Association (2001) and ASIS (2002) references.

Key Control

As part of a building access control system, it is important to enforce a documented key control policy that determines:

  • who has access to which keys and when (a need to access as part of a person's function and not because of an individual's title);
  • how often keys and lock tumblers should be changed;
  • secure storage of keys;
  • return of keys when staff resign/retire; and
  • a key audit program.

Keep a key log and store extra keys in a secure location (i.e. steel key press). Access to and throughout a building can be controlled using a master key system that will vary according to the size of the building. In a small museum or historic house, a one-level master keying system can be used. In a typical set up, the front entrance door and rear entrance door would be keyed to change key A, but are not on the master key. The vault or storage area is also a registered keyway, but not keyed to the master key. Each office or room would be keyed to a change key (A, A, A, etc.) and to the master key. Offices or rooms can be keyed alike, or keyed differently. The master key should be kept in the office in a secured container such as a key press. More detailed information on a key control system can be found in Kelly ().

All locks and tumblers on exterior doors and collections storage areas should be reset and new keys issued on a regular basis. The normal time period recommended by security experts for resetting locks and tumblers and reissuing keys is once every two to three years. This is particularly important if keys are lost or if employees who have left have not returned their keys. These locks should be dead bolts, with 6-pin tumblers.

If a card access system is used, cards can be programmed to allow restricted or unlimited access to specific staff members to various parts of the building. This should also form part of the museum's overall security policy.


Vignette 1. Thefts from a Display Case

A collection of ivory miniatures, recovered as a result of CCTV video surveillance tapes (a typical CCTV surveillance station is shown in Figure 3), was stolen from a locked display case at the Art Gallery of Ontario in . The five miniatures, valued at $1,500,000, were stolen when the display case was prised open. In another incident, miniatures worth about $230,000 were stolen from Hever Castle in England, when thieves, working as a team, were able to distract the guide who was responsible for covering several rooms and prise open a padlocked case. In the second incident, while the thief has been convicted, the miniatures have not been recovered.

Security guard watches CCTV at a typical CCTV surveillance station.
Figure 3. A security guard watching CCTV.

In both incidents, the display case was locked, but was prised open. Neither case was alarmed. In the first incident, CCTV surveillance was able to record the incident. The tape was used in recovering the items. This was not the case in the second incident. In both incidents, the items stolen were small and portable. The first incidence appears to have been a "target of opportunity," but in the second, there are indications from the subsequent trial that this may have been a commissioned theft and that the premises had been previously "cased" by the criminals involved. Both incidents illustrate:

  • that it is imperative that anything small and valuable be properly protected by sturdy, thief-resistant display cases, which are both locked securely and, if necessary, alarmed;
  • the need for adequate security personnel in the display areas who are able to act quickly to apprehend the thieves; and
  • that CCTV may act as a deterrent in some cases, but usually only provides proof of an incident that has occurred; it does not always prevent an incident.

Vignette 2. Vandalism of Artworks

In , two oil paintings, Woman with a Revolver and Surveyor by Canadian artist Alex Colville were damaged with a small sharp object at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Another incident involved a large Leonardo da Vinci cartoon Madonna and Child with Saint Anne and the Young Saint John being blasted with a shotgun at the National Gallery in London in . In a third incident, acid was thrown onto Rembrandt's Danae painting at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in . None of the artworks had been glazed with impact-resistant glass or Plexiglas, although the Leonardo had been glazed with laminated glass.

These incidents illustrate:

  • the need for artworks to be glazed to protect them from vandalism. In each case, damage would have been eliminated or reduced;
  • the use of proximity alarms to prevent visitors getting too close;
  • the need for close observation by guards of visitors' body language; and
  • the installation of metal detectors at entrances to the museum or exhibit area(s) to prevent incidents if the item is of high value or controversial.

References (Key Readings)

  1. Kelly, W. Security Hardware and Security System Planning for Museums. CCI Technical Bulletin 19. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works & Government Services, .

  2. Liston, David, ed. Museum Security and Protection. London; New York: Routledge, .

  3. Shuman, Bruce A. Library Security and Safety Handbook. Prevention, Policies and Procedures. (Chicago; London: American Library Association, .


  1. American Library Association Map Collection Security Guidelines, June 2010. ( PDF Version, 123 KB) Footnote * on .

  2. American Library Association Guidelines Regarding Thefts in Libraries on (Chicago: American Library Association), .

  3. Architects Security Group Inc. Welcome. on .

  4. Gravenor, Kristian. "Graverobbers" delight: Hand-wringing abounds as cemetery creeps steal bronze sculptures., on . Montreal Mirror .

  5. ICOM-CIDOC, on .

  6. Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Physical Security Guides and Reports on .

Websites (Key Readings)

  1. American Library Association/Association of College & Research Libraries Guidelines for the Security of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Other Special Collections on (Chicago: American Library Association), .

  2. The American Society for Industrial Security. Suggested Guidelines in Museum Security (c. ), revised ( PDF Version, 111 KB) on .

Thanks to the Centro Nacional de Conservación y Restauración in Chile, the Canadian Conservation Institute’s web resource Agents of deterioration, translated into Spanish by ICCROM, is now available free of charge. Intended for curators and conservators, the resource identifies 10 primary threats specific to heritage environments.

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