Inside protecting art museums.
Within one week in 2008, the British Museum and the Musée d'Orsay were exposed as horrifically under-secure. In a harmless but embarrassing incident at The British Museum, a political activist managed to place message-scrawled surgical masks on several of the Terracotta Warriors on loan from China. The high-tech alarms, which used software to draw an imaginary barrier around the warrior statues that, if crossed, would sound an alert, never went off. A museum-goer had to fetch a guard, to inform him of the vandalism taking place.
At the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, drunken vandals broke in and punched a hole in a Monet, before escaping. They did set off an alarm, but guards did not respond in time to stop them. If a practical joke and an unpremeditated drunken attack are so easily accomplished, what's to stop adept criminals from stealing from the world's most prominent museums? These are just a few of the countless examples of successful art heists or attacks in major museums, and each one means that some element of security has failed.
Art crime needs to be curbed, but few realize the severity of it. Art crime is among the highest-grossing criminal enterprises worldwide. Since the 1960s, most art crime has been perpetrated by, or on behalf of, international organized crime syndicates. It funds all of the other criminal activities in which these syndicates are involved: from the drug and arms trades to terrorism. Governments, who tend to dismiss art crime as involving only the unimportant trifles of the wealthy, need to be shaken out of their torpor. Governments talk a good game about dyking terrorist funding sources, but have only over the last year or so stepped up to do anything about antiquities looting, which provides millions of dollars per year to organized crime and terrorist organizations.
Ibrahim Bulut knows all about security, particularly when it comes to art. He works as a specialist for the Belgian Meyvaert company, which makes showcases to display art. This may seem like a highly-specific thing to focus on, but their display cases hold works of art that can be worth millions. And because they make bespoke cases, they can be fitted with all manner of hi-tech gadgetry, an array of alarm options, and glass strengthened to withstand attacks from hammers, firearms, even flame-throwers. His firm has worked with the world's leading museums, but their most unusual project is at the forthcoming Louvre Abu Dhabi.
"Securing art is an art in itself," Bulut says. "Protecting high-value artifacts needs special measures, and this can be done in a wide variety of ways, from electronic security systems to high security glazing. High security showcases are a key component to protecting priceless objects, an important complement to organizational measures."
Museums have never been so technologically, and expensively, protected. And yet, theft from museums is on the rise. Why this discrepancy? The answer becomes evident when we examine the time of day at which thieves strike. Museums are secured like fortresses during their hours of closure. Their Achilles heel is the time when they are open to the public. Thieves are choosing not to circumvent elaborate alarm-based defenses, but rather burst right through them in short, violent "blitz" thefts. Alarms are only effective if they prompt a timely and useful response from human guards or police. If the response is as inept as in the aforementioned examples, then the alarm is rendered ineffective.
Bulut continues, "An effective security and safety policy invests in people, who are the strongest link in your security chain. Technology is at its best when it is managed by well-trained staff. Security awareness and basic knowledge of the installed security systems is a must for every cultural institution."
Of late, two fields of thought have risen in the world of museum security. On the one hand, we have a primarily American response to museum security, both in geography and in mentality. Most American museum directors, fueled by insurers, insist that their security departments provide a zero-risk environment. This is, of course, an impossibility, when the charge of museums is to present their collections to the public. But the assumption accompanying this demand is that the more money spent, and the higher-tech the security systems, the better protected the art.
In Europe, by contrast, many of the leading security specialists, like Dick Drent of the Amsterdam-based firm SoSecure, have made the simple but important point that there is risk inherent in displaying art to the public. That risk should be acknowledged, in order to better be contained. The extension of this newer rationale is the further observation that higher-tech does not necessarily mean more secure, and that one universal security system for an entire museum runs the risk of turning into a Maginot Line. In the 2008 case of the Musée d'Orsay, as with the famous "blitz style" 2004 Munch Museum theft in Oslo, criminals chose Alexander's approach to the Gordian knot—when confronted with a complex defense system, simply slice right through it, and act before defenders can react. But in this instance, as in most museum thefts, the success may be attributed not to the consumate skill of the thieves, but to the frustrating failure of the guards to respond effectively.
Human guards have always been the least reliable line of defense in museum security. We need only remember the theft of Benvenuto Cellini's Saliera from the Kunsthistorichesmuseum in Vienna. An allegedly drunken man scaled a scaffold alongside the museum and smashed a window to gain entrance, setting off an alarm. The museum guards, assuming it to be a false alarm, turned it off and resumed their naps and nocturnal entertainments. Now inside the museum, the intruder smashed a glass vitrine containing Cellini's gold and silver salt cellar, one of the finest works of 16th century Italy and perhaps the world's most famous creation of goldsmithery. The shattering set off a second alarm. Now highly annoyed by two disturbances in the same evening, the guards switched off the alarm a second time. The intruder, Robert Mang, left the way he came. It was after many fruitless inquiries and months later that Mr Mang turned himself in, and led police to the unharmed Saliera, buried in a box in the woods outside of Vienna.
What is the lesson here? For most museum guards, the duration of their career will see only a handful of alarm incidents, most or all false. The most exciting endeavor for a majority of museum guards is to prevent six-year-olds from licking a Degas. The natural human assumption is to switch oneself off. Good security directors train and maintain a readiness among their staff to combat the ever-growing enterprise of art crime. If you see a museum guard catching up on a good novel or doing a crossword puzzle on duty, if you see a guard seated, staring off into space, or finishing a difficult Sudoku, do the civilized world a favor. Give that guard a piece of your mind for slacking on the job, and then write a letter to the museum director. Keep in mind that the painting that they allow to be stolen is being used as collateral in a deal for drugs or arms, or is funding a terrorist attack. Whether or not you are an art lover, unless you are a fan of drug and arms dealers and terrorists, you want art to be protected.
Human guards must be trained and maintained in an effective manner. It is ludicrous to spend millions on high-tech security systems, if one's guards won't know how to respond when they are needed. The best security directors, with budgets large and small, distinguish themselves by how they train their guards.
"There is no such thing as water-tight security," Bulut warns, "but effective security measures can prevent a great deal of crime, and certainly a great deal of loss. Security must have a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A must focus on deterring and delaying a crime. Plan B must focus on detection, further delaying, alarming, assessing the alarm and an adequate response. An adequate response means interrupting the adversary before loss or damage to the artifact."
Human guards providing an adequate response is crucial. All the hi-tech gizmos money can buy are ineffective if they are not accompanied by an adequate response. Museums need to re-evaluate the role and training of their guards. If not, lupine art thieves will have the run of the hen-house, and even the most sophisticated alarm systems will be nothing more than sound and fury—a soundtrack echoing through the empty halls of the world's museums.