Day at the Museum

By Russ Munyan | Sep 15, 2009
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The world of security in museums, archives and repositories is one of contradictions, said Ann A. Fortescue, director of Education and Visitor Services at Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz History Center.

“Our job is to both protect our collections from, as well as to reveal them to, our visitors. We prevent people from getting too close to the artifacts, while displaying them in the most revealing way we can. And we must provide the best security possible, all on a nonprofit budget,” she said.

With such a mission, it should not be surprising that curators and security directors typically think of security in much broader terms than closed-circuit television (CCTV) and electronic access control systems. Nonetheless, many of their thoughts are still relevant to electrical contractors.

“Security in these different institutions is a really broad topic because their needs are so diverse,” said Martin L. Levitt, librarian at the American Philosophical Society and history professor at Temple University.

As a result, he said, any contractor that wants to do work in a local museum, repository, archive or rare book collection will do well first to learn about its mission and collections before initiating contact or bidding on work.

For example, he said, conventional art museums have the mission of entertaining as well as educating. Therefore, they display artifacts and collections to the general public with relatively unobtrusive supervision, such as security guards and roped areas. By contrast, in a natural history museum with drawers of mounted insects, users may be research scholars with special access requirements, making this museum’s security needs and vulnerabilities rather different.

Repositories and archives typically do not allow visitors unsupervised access to collections. In some, visitors first must submit to background checks, which is not required in a traditional museum.

Nonetheless, Levitt said, all these institutions have security needs in common, such as protection and preservation of the collections and environmental needs and personnel concerns that apply to both employees and contracted workers.

“In addition to having the security needs of a bank, we have the cleanliness demands of a hospital and the climate control requirements of a data center,” Fortescue said.

“We have to ask questions like, ‘How secure are the crew members on a certain job?’,” said Thomas Murphy, director of Security and Facilities at the Heinz History Center.

It is not just that curators and security directors worry about whether work crew members have criminal records. It’s more that workers need to understand the unique and sensitive requirements of controlled museum environments and be willing to do their parts to ensure that collections are properly protected.

“For the safety of our collection, we keep the building humidity between 45–55 percent and the temperature between 68–72 degrees. Therefore, contractors simply cannot do things like prop doors open while they travel in and out performing work or even while transporting materials,” Murphy said.

“It’s also important that our contractors understand our clientele and how we serve them,” Fortescue said. “Our facility is sometimes in use from 5 a.m. until after midnight with viewing hours, meetings and receptions, so we often don’t have the luxury of bringing contractors in during off-hours when we are closed. Therefore, contractors may need to be prepared to perform work during business hours

in a way that it is both safe for and sensitive to our constituents.”

She described multiple incidents where contractors failed in that.

“Whenever possible, we want our contractors to be invisible to our public,” Fortescue said.

Murphy said, for everyone’s sake, contractors and museum staff should identify a single point of contact on each side through which all communication occurs.

“That way, contractors are not taking instructions from just anyone with a museum name badge, and the museum knows exactly whom to approach if there is an issue with the work,” she said.

All three experts agree it is best for public places to forge long-term relationships with their contractors.

“We like it best when our on-site contractors have already demonstrated that we can trust them,” Fortescue said.

Security in these facilities has more to do with careful people than slick technology. So while ECs look for opportunities to install wiring systems for such as CCTV and access control, they will best serve their customers if they ensure they are not the very security risks that their clients are trying to avoid.

MUNYAN is a freelance writer in Olathe, Kan., specializing in technical and business writing. He can be reached at

About The Author

Russ Munyan is a freelance writer in Olathe, Kan., specializing in technical and business writing. He can be reached at





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