Inside Museum Security Systems Around The World
Museum security poses a very particular problem: extremely valuable items must be kept safe while simultaneously remaining on display for hundreds of visitors each day. After all, horror stories of failed museum security are etched into the public mind:
- Munch Museum theft: In 2004, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and “Madonna” were taken off the wall of the Munch Museum in Oslo by two thieves in stereotypical black ski masks.1 Police recovered the paintings, estimated in 2006 to be worth $100 million, two years later.
- Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft: The 1990 heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains one of history’s most famous crimes. Two men disguised as police officers took $500 million worth of art, including pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet. The items have still not been recovered.2
In the years since these instances, museum security has become an especially hot topic. So, how do these institutions take precaution to prevent such disastrous occurrences from happening again?
How Museums Secure Their Holdings
According to museum security experts, there are a combination of measures to take to protect their holdings, which security-fiends can see in action at institutions like the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Here are the methods behind how security managers protect museum holdings.
Ton Cremers, a former security manager at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, says a combination of alarm technology, on-the-ground human surveillance, and a host of other regulations is vital for artifact protection in museums.
“No alarm response organization will be quick enough to react adequately when it is possible to execute a burglary and theft in less than a minute,” Cremers told Source Security. “These systems are useless if not combined with structural and organizational measures.”
“Security must always be established according to the redundancy principle, which means that if any of the security precautions are tampered with, the remaining measures must be able to do the job,” he continued.
You can see this redundancy on display inside Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. The establishment uses a combination of complex laser detectors, on-the-ground security officers, and other tactical and organizational measures to keep their holdings safe. Felia Brugger, who runs the museum’s security management, told Sick Insight magazine that she appreciates the “flexibility” of laser detectors.3
“In the Painting Gallery, we often see re-hangings and special exhibitions take place,” she said. “Whereas other systems had to be readjusted in elaborate ways, laser detectors provide the possibility of securing the entire wall, no matter what changes on it.”
Some of Cremer Museum’s security suggestions include securing roofs and using CCTV cameras as deterrents. Steven R. Keller, a library and museum security consultant, also discussed museum security precautions with Security Today in 2014. His list of recommendations includes wireless vibration sensors that can detect a person trying to access a painting through a wall and motion-detection devices that sound an audible alarm if an observer gets too close to a piece on display.
Museum of Flight
At Seattle’s Museum of Flight, a smaller institution that displays air and space artifacts, IT director Hunter Hughes has opened up about the successes of using a simpler WatchGuard security system in a video feature for the company’s website.
“In the 50 years the museum has been here, it’s experienced tremendous growth,” he said. “[The WatchGuard products have] allowed us to see potential intrusion attempts…We’ve never had a difficulty that we couldn’t solve on the security side.”
For a more specific understanding of security measures taken at iconic museums like The Louvre or the Smithsonian, you’ll have to join the industry. One safety strategy that most security professionals agree on is keeping the details of their tactics close to the chest.
Washington Post. (2006). Stolen ‘Scream' Painting Recovered After 2-Year Search.
Boston Globe. (2017). Six theories behind the stolen Gardner Museum paintings.
SICK. (2020). Blog.