THE MONA LISA has been attacked four times over the last century; once with acid, once with a rock, once with paint and once with a teacup. It was also stolen in 1911 by a former Louvre employee, only to be recovered two years later. The attempts at destroying and stealing the Mona Lisa are probably the most infamous examples of art vandalism and theft, but they are indicative of the challenges of museum security as a whole. The vast majority of art vandalism is most notable for being mundane. Some are committed by the mentally ill, such as the Italian man who smashed off one of Michelangelo’s toes with a hammer. Others are the result of political or artistic protest, as in the case of the members of the Situationist art movement who sawed off the head of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, or that of Tony Shafrazi — himself the owner of an art gallery — who spray-painted “LIES KILL ALL” across Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in protest of the My Lai massacre.

Although many of these types of vandalism are premeditated, very few are highly conceived in their execution. The same goes to museum theft. There are next to no examples of Hollywood-style high-tech gadgetry and gymnastics. Art thefts like those in the movie “Ocean’s Twelve,” where Vincent Cassel’s character dances across a laser field to steal a Fabergé egg, just don’t happen. The acts of vandalism are typically crimes of opportunity: A small scratch, a piece of chewing gum stuck to a statue, a pencil mark on a painting. And the thefts often come from tourists taking souvenirs — pieces of dinosaur bone, for example. Or, as in the case of the Mona Lisa, they are committed by current or former museum employees.

The challenge for every museum is how to balance accessibility to the public with the need to protect priceless objects. In a museum there is no acceptable margin of loss. Because the objects are themselves priceless, the duty of every museum is to keep every single item in its collection safe from vandalism or theft. In addition, museums must find ways to encourage a connection between the public and the objects, allowing visitors to get as close as possible without compromising the safety of priceless objects.

In some cases the balance is weighted on the side of safety. This is the case with the Mona Lisa, which is now behind bulletproof glass. But this is less than ideal for the viewing public. Encased as the Mona Lisa is, it is difficult to discern the brushstrokes, to truly see the artistic work for what it is. Moreover, many museum exhibitions are mobile, either traveling from museum to museum periodically, or being rearranged throughout the museum as new exhibitions come and go. The kind of absolute security necessitated by the attacks on the Mona Lisa is not ideal, and those types of permanent museum exhibitions are few and far between.

Complicating the situation, objects must be protected at all times. Individual objects and exhibits must be secure when the museum is open, after visiting hours and when the museum is officially closed. Objects must be secured during gray hours as well — when the museum is closed to the public but the staff is installing or rearranging exhibits. During these times, entire sectors of the museum may have the primary security system disabled, necessitating secondary security measures to ensure against employee theft and vandalism. This all spells opportunity for security integrators to design solutions for this market. Proceed for further discussion on methods to secure priceless museum objects in both permanent placement and in transit, with a particular focus on hardwired and wireless alternatives.

Securing Museum Facilities

Securing the priceless objects in a museum begins with securing the museum as a whole. Although much of a museum’s overall security system is aimed at preventing intrusion after hours, unauthorized access into secure areas by both the public and employees is equally important. The following are typical systems and tools used in museum security:

◆ Burg/intrusion that’s monitored 24/7. When an alarm is activated, local security is alerted, as well as the central station, and, where appropriate, either campus or municipal police.

◆ Museums with full-time security staff and their own central station on premises have duress capability (i.e., either fixed or mobile panic buttons) so that they can send immediate alerts to an outside central station or police. Duress capability is included anywhere there is a transfer of money. It’s also afforded to volunteers so that they can call for help as needed, either to summon assistance in the case of attempted theft or vandalism, or in the case of medical emergencies.

◆ Exterior doors and windows have door/window alarms to alert security if a door or window is opened or left ajar. Likewise, interior doors that are not accessible to the public are alarmed to prevent against unauthorized access. Unused exhibition halls, as well as collection storage rooms, remain locked and alarmed. Exterior doors with glass and exterior windows are monitored by glass-break detection devices that send an alarm when the glass is broken.

◆ Motion detectors cover strategic points throughout the building to detect both intruders in unauthorized areas, as well as visitors who’ve managed to stay inside the museum after hours. Besides the obvious high-traffic areas, motion detectors are placed in unused exhibition halls and collection storage rooms, especially at the points of entry, such as doors and air ducts.

◆ To protect against theft, safes and vaults containing valuable objects or money are alarmed, as well as collection storage rooms, which are also protected by motion detectors and door contacts.

◆ Vibration or seismic sensors are attached to priceless objects that trip an alarm if the object is disturbed. These can be sensitive enough to detect the touch of a single finger, similar to the one used to protect the Fabergé egg. Once tripped, the alarm can provide notification as well as an electronic map indicating the object’s location.

◆ Sensors are also attached to the back of wall-mounted objects. If the object is removed, the alarm can be programmed to emit a high-pitched screech to warn everyone locally, as well as onsite security.

◆ Targeted motion detection is used to beam directly over objects, creating a virtual curtain that alarms whenever somebody comes too close to the object. Usually the response is twofold: A local alarm alerts observers they’re too close, and security is notified of a potential problem.

◆ Saturation motion detection for unused exhibit space. The entire room is flooded and any dead spots are eliminated. Any intruder is touched by at least two motion detectors at any given time.

◆ CCTV cameras are mounted to view the museum’s most valuable objects. These can be integrated to record automatically when other alarms, such as motion detectors, are triggered. This allows onsite security immediate visibility into security breaches, as well as prosecution evidence should the need arise.

◆ Access to nonpublic areas is restricted to the staff who need it, and is controlled by physical access control measures — be they card readers, numeric keypads, or any other devices connected to the overall alarm system.

◆ Whether in active exhibitions or in collection storage units, display cases are alarmed to alert security when they are opened or tampered with.

◆ Museums have a 24-hour battery backup on all alarm systems.

◆ Theft and vandalism are only two of the potential dangers to priceless objects. Fire and other environmental damage must also be protected against. Environmental systems and tools:

◆ It goes without saying that fire alarms, sprinklers and temperature controls are all critical components of any museum environmental system. Usually these are integrated into the building automation system, with some events tied back to the intrusion/access control system.

◆ Since there may be objects with unique chemical or material properties, temperature and humidity control in the display or display case is monitored and controlled apart from the main building HVAC control.

◆ Collection storage rooms are also monitored to protect against damage to stored objects. Rooms with pipes can have water detection devices that send an alert at the presence of standing water, and humidity sensors that guard against mold and mildew.

Securing Mobile & Special Exhibits

Truth be told, both have applicability in museum security. Hardwired security systems are fine for permanently stationary objects, but can make it nearly impossible to secure changing exhibitions. Wireless sensors, on the other hand, are easily moved between exhibition halls and collection storage rooms, with minimal disruption in coverage. The same goes for traveling exhibits.

Likewise, hardwiring security devices can be difficult or impossible in many situations. There is no good option for hardwiring into a glass display case, for instance. In museums located in historic facilities, the challenges increase exponentially, not only due to thick walls and high ceilings, but in the interest of preserving the building itself.

To adequately address the needs of museums, both wired and wireless provide complementary features that result in a comprehensive security system. Hardwired security solutions are a bit less flexible than wireless solutions. Once the wireless security infrastructure is in place, wireless devices can simply be mounted where needed, then registered in the system. When an alarm is sent, repeaters — devices used to extend the range of the wireless signal — ensure that the alarm is carried to the receiver, which then disseminates the alarm to the museum’s internal security, as well as to an outside central station or police.

Though it isn’t the case with wired, not all wireless is created equal. Wireless that’s suitable for residential applications won’t have the flexibility, range or reliability of purpose-built wireless for commercial applications.

These purpose-built systems can be installed in hours, instead of the days or weeks required for hardwired systems. And once the system is operational, it is easy to move, add or remove sensors as needed. Not so with hardwired end points. For museums, this mobility feature is critical to securing portable exhibits and objects.

Commercial wireless systems also often include survey tools that simulate the wireless installation in a building, or across a campus. The survey helps to ensure adequate coverage, verifying the system’s installed performance and reliability, and helps reduce the likelihood of post installation rework. Using survey tools reduces the risk of failure, which is key to an effective security system. Site surveys are also common in the preparation of sales quotations for commercial properties of all sizes. When conducted properly, they eliminate overbidding stemming from the unknown labor risks associated with cutting and drilling through walls, ceilings and floors.

Commercial systems are also supervised, reporting device tampering, low batteries and devices that are inactive or missing. Repeaters, mentioned above, are used to extend the range of wireless coverage by retransmitting signals from security sensors and/or other repeaters. Repeater-based systems can be easily scaled to monitor a single exhibit, a building or an entire multibuilding campus spread over acres, including detached outbuildings and associated parking structures.

Becoming a Security Curator

Museums everywhere share a dual mission: To ensure the protection and preservation of their collections, while providing public accessibility that’s close enough to priceless objects to establish a personal relationship. Because the objects in a museum are often priceless, there is no acceptable loss; anything stolen, vandalized or destroyed cannot be replaced. However, the objects cannot just be locked in a sealed vault; it is the nature of a museum that they must be available to the public to fulfill their purpose.

Like museums, security comes in two facets — wired and wireless, each complementing the other to collectively satisfy a unique set of demands. Wired has its role protecting permanent exhibits while wireless, the most unobtrusive and flexible option, satisfies the ever-changing and dynamic environment of portable exhibit management. At its core, a museum security solution protects the objects, and, at the same time, remains flexible and unobtrusive enough to keep the attention of both its infrequent visitors and loyal patrons.

Any way you slice it, it’s a market opportunity security integrators will not want to pass up. Doing so could make your business a relic of the past.