Museums are among the most difficult for security companies to protect because of the many methods criminals use to gain unauthorized access. The risk rises with the number of valuable items on display. It’s a real challenge to provide open access to the general public while protecting those items. Each display and the facility itself must be protected from an assortment of threats.

A few decades ago, the only way to protect museum displays was to provide around-the-clock security guards. Comprehensive protection involved intense visual observation combined with well-constructed display cases, unbreakable glass and quality mechanical locks. Paintings were, as they are today, secured by tamperproof fasteners designed to stop or at least slow a thief’s progress.

Today, luckily, there is high-tech electronic security.

“Museum protection requires a multilayer approach where you leverage perimeter, interior and individual display protection. Not to have it is an invitation to a thief,” said Mark Craft, vice president and general manager, Protek Professional Technologies Inc., Princeton, W.Va.

The importance of video surveillance

Good security consists of layers. Protection should include a general facility alarm system for after-hours protection and a combination of electronic and physical security measures intended to protect individual display items.

The first level of protection covers the space immediately outside the facility. Adequate lighting and a quality video surveillance system could deter thievery.

Video inside the facility is just as important. Interior cameras document everything that happens in specific areas and protect individual displays.

With advanced digital camera technology, when a person approaches a painting, sculpture or some other display, the system audibly warns them.

“With the use of IP cameras and a speaker in combination with our guard schedule, you will be able to quickly set up an alert that will set off a prerecorded message when someone gets too close to an exhibit or moves into a restricted area,” said Mark Thrower, an engineer with USA Security of Aurora, Colo. “It can also alert [security guards], whether in the guard room or via a 3GPP network device, of the situation. It also allows you to view the camera or area in question via 3GPP device by a roaming patrol to see if some sort of human response is necessary.”

Video images can be stored on a digital video recorder, network video recorder, a Web server internal to each camera, or some other type of video storage system. The exact storage method will depend on whether the museum has placed security cameras on its local area network or a dedicated video network. Remote access also can be granted to administrators and responding police officers.

It’s important to secure the recording system, so unauthorized individuals cannot tamper or destroy the evidence contain therein. A backup means of image recording can be a great advantage.

Electronic alarm protection

Alarm systems also play an important role in securing valuable paintings and glass cases containing priceless antiquities, sculptures, and other valuables. Protek’s Craft became involved in securing a lunar rock (pictured above) awarded to Virginia Tech alumni Christopher C. Kraft as part of NASA’s Ambassador of Exploration award program.

“When we protected a moon rock at Virginia Tech in 2006, assessing the risk was an important part of the job. One of the museum officials asked me why the lunar sample should be so well protected. After all, ‘what can someone possibly do with a moon rock?’” Craft said. “[But]where can you go to replace it?”

Security consists of a general facilities detection system as well as individual sensors within the display case itself. Glass-break, vibration and tamper sensors were installed to detect an unauthorized entry into what was essentially a glass cube.

The suite containing the lunar rock also was protected with perimeter door switches, motion detection and 24/7 monitoring in conjunction with an on-site security department.

To make the job even more challenging, Craft had to have everything in place before the rock arrived, which meant he had to know what he was to protect.

Security is about ensuring the risk the thief must take outweighs the ultimate reward. With each hurdle you place between the thief and his objective, the less likely it is that a theft will occur.

COLOMBO is a 35-year veteran in the security and life safety markets. He is director with FireNetOnline.com and a nationally recognized trade journalist in East Canton, Ohio. Reach him at abc@alcolombo.us.