The Fine Art of Museum Security

Article excerpt

THE 1980s PRODUCED AN INflated art market with record-breaking sums paid not only for works by well-established artists but also for works by new talent. Possibly spurred by the speculative auction prices, the biggest art thefts ever to besiege American institutions have occurred in the last five years. The rising risks and resulting costs have focused attention on the need for museum security, with an emphasis on access control.

Yet the nature of a museum--to provide an environment for the public, students, and scholars to experience works of art as the artist intended--appears to run counter to a successful access control program. The difficulty of controlling public access to the museum's collections is just part of the challenge. While the fundamental tenets of access control may be adopted, the application of these controls to the unique organizational structure, physical characteristics, and singular scope of each museum's mission may vary widely.

Museums connected to a college or university tend to place a strong emphasis on teaching and scholarship in art history. Such museums usually employ a large temporary student staff. Fine arts faculty members, who often are not part of the museum administration, view the museum's holdings as a resource tool much like books in a library, and they may consider that works of art, like books, can be readily retrievable at a moment's notice. Faculty members are not schooled in museum security concerns and, therefore, are not prepared for the inconvenience of having to work through the layers of controlled accessibility to the collections.

The Indiana University Art Museum (IUAM) is such an institution. With three permanent collection galleries and one special exhibition gallery, this moderately sized museum houses notable holdings of ancient jewelry, the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collections of Pre-Columbian, Oceanic, and African Art, as well as a vast number of prints and drawings from the Renaissance period to the present.

The galleries, totaling 30,000 square feet, are equipped with CCTV coverage to monitor the collections and the public's activities. In addition to motion sensors, door contacts, and other electronic sensors, alarms have been installed on individual exhibition cases.

A recent development for the protection of vulnerable displays is the use of an active infrared (AIR) sensor to create a security curtain. Unlike the commonly used passive infrared (PIR) sensors that detect intrusion by temperature, AIR uses a laser light, which detects intrusion when the beam of light is interrupted.

Magnetic tape applied to the floor around the area to be segregated maintains the laser beam within the security curtain and provides a fairly narrow protective field. This application allows the public to stand at a comfortable viewing distance from each work of art, while providing a protective barrier without stanchions. The system is especially useful for narrow passageways where stanchions can be cumbersome.

Multiple AIRs can be used for displays in the middle of the gallery to provide a protective barrier around the display. An audible alarm attached to a relay gently reminds the public to keep a distance from the paintings, while signaling the officers on gallery post and at the central station. Museum curators are reluctant to place protective glazing over oil paintings, as this is counter to the original intent of the artist. AIR, therefore, offers a compromise for the security, curatorial, and conservation departments.

Special events. Museums are increasingly used for special event receptions--community and university related. Special events hosted at museums around the country increased by 26 percent from 1987 to 1991, according to a survey of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Cultural events at museums escalated 87 percent during this same period. Concerts, lectures, poetry readings, and films have become part of the normal calendar of events. …