The first rule of museum security is: You do not talk about museum security

The first rule of museum security is: You do not talk about museum security

Louise Grove and Suzie Thomas

In 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers stole thirteen works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, worth an estimated $500 million. Twenty seven years later the location of the paintings remains unknown despite thousands of hours of investigation and the recently increased offer of a $10 million reward. Stories of museum heists like this doubtless capture the public imagination, but are devastating to the places and people affected by them. Theft is not the only issue museums face in terms of security: vandalism; protest; fire; flooding; and terrorism threats are all significant issues in the museum context. The security challenges for museums are therefore complex – and not only do they need to preserve and protect cultural material in their collections, but also make it accessible and available to a range of audiences, each with differing needs.

Our research was an exploratory study of security-related issues within museums of two northern European countries: England and Finland. We interviewed 13 members of staff, from four museums in each country (eight museums in total) about their experiences of security in the broadest sense. Our interviews highlighted the sometimes very specific security and safety challenges that different museums face. For example, being located in a historic building might limit the ways in which the museum can make adaptations in order to accommodate contemporary conservation requirements. Similarly, potentially controversial collections might attract politically-motivated attempts to deface objects. Yet there were also areas of commonality across the different museums, which we identified under the following themes: personal safety; visitor experience; object protection; and repeat victimisation.

There were ethical challenges to both gathering and interpreting the data for this study. We knew we could potentially face some opposition from our participants as a result of both internal and external guidelines on museum security. The International Council of Museums has a Code of Ethics to which all member museums and museum professionals are expected to adhere. The code covers a wide range of activities, but the code is very clear on the discussion of museum security: ‘Information about the security of the museum or of private collections and locations visited during official duties must be held in strict confidence by museum personnel’ (ICOM 2013: 12). In practice, everyone that we approached was eager to discuss security with us, which perhaps is indicative of the social capital bestowed upon us as academics. Nonetheless, we were careful to put appropriate measures in place to ensure confidentiality and anonymity.

We turn now to our key findings. Across the board, interviewees raised the issue of personal safety – of both staff and visitors. This included concerns such as how to enhance the safety of lone workers, how to communicate procedures and incidents across the museum personnel (considering that some may be only part time or temporary workers or volunteers, or not in direct contact with every department), and how to ensure staff wellbeing in the workplace. It also meant ensuring that visitors were in a safe environment, covering everything from health and safety in public spaces through to the unthinkable – but sadly not without its precedents – possibility of terrorist attacks.

‘…the policy here is that if somebody comes here with a gun… pointing a gun at you… you just do what they say, that’s the security [laugh] training we have.’

Visitor experience was also – understandably – a high priority for the museums in our study. This meant that tensions could arise between what might be the most secure solution for the safety of objects in particular, and what was best for visitor access and enjoyment.

‘There is the highest risk because you got people directly handling [the] collection. Unlike in other museums, we don’t have the… like here’s the junk and the handling collection or here’s this specific handling collection.’

In one example relayed to us, and prevalent in museums across the world, rhinoceros horns that have previously been on display have been removed to safe storage (or even destroyed in some cases), and replaced by replicas. This arguably affects visitor experience by not displaying the original – authentic – object, but protects the horn from an increasing trend in theft to sell on for use in traditional Asian medicine practices. In another example, a potentially offensive satirical artwork was removed from public display at the insistence of the head of security, for fear that it would increase the risk of an incident in light of recent terrorist attacks elsewhere.

The protection of objects varied, to some extent influenced by the nature of museum collections. As mentioned above, some objects may be vulnerable to destruction or defacement as a form of protest if they are perceived to represent a controversial or objectionable practice or ideology.

‘…one threat is that somebody tries to ruin our collections, because of what they represent… But it’s kind of the threat that is really hard to manage, because it is enough [that] there is one person with the, for example, spray bottle in the pocket [who] goes in and starts to spray our [exhibits].’

Similarly, as with the rhinoceros horn, a black market demand may make particular materials or objects more vulnerable to theft. In addition to theft, threats such as accidental damage by staff or visitors, were also mentioned by our interviewees. Interviewees listed countermeasures such as physical compliance with specific object security requirements (for example if arranging to display objects on loan from elsewhere), or limiting the number of staff with access to collection stores.

Not every interviewee could recall thefts at their museums – and indeed thefts and other criminal activities are only one facet of the many security considerations that museum managers face. However, in the incidents of thefts that were discussed, repeat victimization came up as an issue. One interviewee described how two break-ins in quick succession appeared to be the same group testing out different ways in which to get into the museum and access the areas in which parts of the collection were kept. In many places, informal information sharing networks allows the communication of risk to nearby museums.

‘…we got stung by that but we are able then to pass information on to all other attractions to say… be vigilant because there is obviously a team going around at the moment.’

Criminological research shows that in other settings too, prior victimization is a reliable predictor that a crime will happen again. Therefore, reacting quickly by improving security (improving alarm systems, changing locks) is essential. Unfortunately it is also clear that for many museums – hampered by dwindling resources – a swift reaction is often unfeasible.

We’ve taken some early steps into the realm of museum security. Whilst we only studied a small sample of museums and their staff, we have seen that there appears to be common ground between participants from a range of different types and sizes of museums. Security was affected by structural constraints such as the type of building containing the museum, financial limitations on staffing, and the desire to create a good visitor experience. Training was often perceived as being outdated and irrelevant, with a scepticism that trainers did not understand the museum context. Training was particularly difficult for seasonal and part-time employees and volunteers to attend. Communication tended to rely on informal relationships which means that when a staff member moves onto a different museum, information sharing on security issues across different museums is at risk. Despite the fact that museums work within often very limited budgets, we saw a lot of excellent practice within museum security. However, it would be fair to say that this was inconsistently applied across the museums in this study. We suspect that future work will further draw out security issues which need addressing both to protect collections, and also access to collections in the future.

Grove, L. & Thomas, S. (2016). ‘The Rhino Horn on Display Has Been Replaced by a Replica’: Museum Security in Finland and England. Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies. 14 (1), p.1.
International Council of Museums (2013). ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums


Louise Grove is Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy at Loughborough University. @drlouisegrove and Suzie Thomas is Senior University Lecturer in Museum Studies at University of Helsinki @SuzieShomasHY. Louise and Suzie have worked together for a number of years on heritage crime issues including the Historic England-funded ‘The extent of crime and anti-social behaviour facing designated heritage assets‘ in 2012; and in 2014 edited the international collection Heritage Crime: Progress, Prospects and Prevention. The research was funded by a Future Development Fund grant from the University of Helsinki Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies and published here

Image Credit: Flikr Hernán Piñera