Museum security is a delicate balance between many visitors and a lot of expensive and rare artifacts. Security uses officers knowledgeable to customer service and specific displays, protection technologies as well as stolen art databases to help recover assets.

Except for Wall Street and rogue traders, there is no better place to steal high-priced assets than museums. In some cases, it is an easy effort. Take the of . In late May, someone took $2 million in gold jewelry. While officials there denied any security problems, a blog of Bruce Schneier of Mountain View, , has a different story to tell.

He writes that:

  • Four hours before the break-in, two or three key surveillance cameras at the
  • Around the same time, a caller claiming to be from the alarm company phoned campus security, telling them there was a problem with the system and to ignore any alarms that might go off.
  • Campus security fell for the ruse and ignored an automated computer alert sent to them.
  • Meanwhile surveillance cameras that were still operating captured poor pictures of what was going on inside the museum because of a policy to turn the lights off at night.
  • Then, as the lone guard working overnight in the museum that night left for a smoke break, the thief or thieves broke in, wearing gas masks and spraying bear spray to slow down anyone who might stumble across them.

More Attention to Detail

The bear spray was an interesting touch. But other institutions are doing a different job, thanks in part of better trained security officers and better technology.

At the top of what many people around the world refer to as “The Rocky Steps” is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. About a mile east of the Art Museum on is The Franklin housing the impressive Benjamin Franklin National Memorial. Through January, while visitors at the were looking at Renoir’s masterpieces, AlliedBarton Security Services personnel were guarding the priceless works of art and providing customer service. The contract security officer firm also protected the $675 million King Tut collection at The Franklin.

Museums may not be one of the first venues that come to mind when considering the critical role that security plays.  But, the volume of visitors constantly moving in and out of such facilities, coupled with the ever changing, and extremely rare and valuable exhibits, make museum security extremely important.

Crowds Are the Challenge

“Our anticipated attendance for planning purposes was one million guests,” said Mark Harmon, director of safety and security for The Franklin. “We also felt that we could surpass that number, ending up somewhere between 1.2 million and 1.5 million. The exhibition exceeded its initial attendance forecast by almost 30 percent, making it the most-visited venue of the North American tour of the boy king.” Working on extensive preparations with Harmon, the security team met weekly beginning six months out with Harmon and his staff to create a security plan designed especially for King Tut. Included on their preparation checklist were:

  • Identifying posts and physical staffing requirements for the exhibit, and its move-in and move-out
  • Coordinating schedules with the Philadelphia Police Department
  • Hosting a special recruiting Job Fair for the assignment and conducting site specific training classes for new security officers and supervisors
  • Coordinating customer service training classes for security officers assigned to the exhibit
  • Developing fire evacuation plans and conducting drills
  • Developing medical emergency procedures
  • Implementing a roll-call program for the staff

Visitor and Officer Connection

“We certainly accomplished everything we planned – nothing was damaged, incident calls (mostly medical) were handled quickly and professionally, and on-site management was very responsive to our needs and those of our visitors,” said Harmon. Added Herb Lottier, who heads the Art Museum’s security staff, “Security is of paramount importance to a visitor’s museum experience. Typically, we are the only people that a visitor will see – we’re uniformed, we’re highly visible and we’re all over the building.”

There also are databases that share stolen art information. All over the world, Interpol has pioneered a database of missing and stolen artwork.

Since 1947, it established the first international notice on stolen works of art. Since then, their techniques have evolved greatly and the agency has developed a highly efficient system for circulating information in the form of a database accessible to member countries, as well as the more widely available Stolen Works of Art CD-ROM. Go to for more information.