Security in Motion

By Andrew Turk, CPP

Making adjustments. Typically, if a prospective host museum does not meet the initial security requirements for a high-risk exhibit, the American Museum of Natural History will work with the institution to enhance its security in preparation for hosting this type of exhibit. At one small but highly respected museum in Michigan, for example, updates to the security system were made to accommodate a very- high-risk jewelry exhibit.

American Museum of Natural History staff worked closely with the host museum’s security staff to ensure that the proper changes were made. Windows and skylights were closed off to reduce intrusion risks. There was also an enhancement of the overall electronic security of the museum, including updates to CCTV and alarm systems.

The American Museum of Natural History was initially concerned that the host museum’s relatively remote location made prompt police response difficult. After the changes were made to the host museum’s security, however, the American Museum of Natural History was satisfied that if a breach occurred, the security measures at the host museum were sophisticated enough that they could delay thieves long enough for police to respond in time even given the anticipated delay.

Travel preparations. Preparing the exhibit for travel requires another type of review. Before an exhibit leaves the American Museum of Natural History, a representative from the museum’s curatorial staff, typically the museum registrar, records the condition of each object, making note of distinguishing characteristics or any damage.

In many cases, a representative from the museum travels with the exhibit to ensure that proper preservation standards, such as humidity and temperature levels, are upheld throughout the travel. The level of in-transit security an object receives depends on its value and theft appeal. For example, many objects from the diamond exhibit were hand-carried onto an airplane by a security guard. Less portable portions of the exhibit were transported by bonded and insured carriers that used both air and ground transportation.

When the exhibit was transported by air, armored transport vehicles would meet the plane on the tarmac and load the cargo. In addition, security guards were always present. The objects then traveled from the airport to the destination via convoy.

However the collection is transported, when the object arrives at its destination, a museum representative compares the original condition report with the object. This procedure ensures that if any damage occurred during transit, it will be recorded. It also detects if the original object has been switched for a faux version.

Shipping enclosures. Every aspect of the traveling exhibit must be well protected, typically inside a specially constructed wooden traveling crate. Display cases are designed for display only and may not protect the object if, for example, the case is turned upside down. For that reason, the artifacts and the display cases are shipped separately, ensuring that both will arrive with minimal damage.

Small, high-value items, such as the diamonds, are often transported by security personnel via attaché cases that are designed to absorb shock and to maintain optimal humidity and climate conditions. Larger items that cannot be hand carried are shipped in environmentally controlled, padded wooden crates.

Protection of the art itself is not the only consideration. Without the display cases functioning properly the artifact cannot go on display. And manufacturing a new case or repairing a damaged one while on the road is often impossible.

The display cases are extremely fragile and complicated and are constructed of a variety of materials, including shatterproof Plexiglas. More important than the actual construction material used in the walls is the type of glue or fasteners used to join the side of the cases together. Some glues used in the construction of vitrines (glass-paneled cases for displaying fine artifacts) can harm delicate artifacts, such as manuscripts, so special compounds that do not emit harmful fumes are necessary. These highly specialized components may not be available while on the road.

Thus, the safe arrival of the display cases is paramount.  The traveling enclosures for these display cases are similar to those used for the art itself. They are constructed of wood and are padded.

Alarms. Alarms are sometimes built into the high-security vitrines as was done in the Einstein exhibit. The same approach was taken with the museum’s Native American jewelry exhibit. In that instance, a case was designed that included alarm sensors, which were installed during the fabrication of the enclosure. The exposed portions of the alarms were painted by the museum’s in-house experts and blended perfectly with the inside of the case, making them virtually undetectable to the untrained eye.

The American Museum of Natural History uses a variety of intrusion alarms and environmental sensors in both its in-house and traveling exhibits, which can be either hardwired or wireless. The museum uses a layered approach to its sensors and alarms, typically incorporating more than one type for each exhibit.

For example, on a high-security gem case, contact sensors were installed on all the openings. They sound an alarm if the case is opened. A separate volumetric sensor, which detects any capacity changes, such as if the protected object has been moved, was also used. If someone subverted the contact alarm by cutting an opening in the glass, the volumetric sensor would detect that the object was moved and would sound an alarm.

In addition, a vibration sensor was used with the other sensors to detect if someone attempted to use brute force against the object. The vibration sensor could also be programmed to alarm both at the case and in the security control room to simultaneously scare off any potential thieves or vandals and to alert security.

Wireless. Wireless alarms are used in some permanent exhibits within the museum and, as noted earlier, are sent with most high-security traveling exhibits. When an alarm is triggered, a signal is sent to a transmitter, which sends the information over wireless airwaves to a receiver located within the museum. The receiver then relays the message over a secured LAN or WAN connection to the museum’s security system, signaling an alarm to the monitoring guard.

Because each artifact enclosure can have a variety of alarms and sensors that measure for signs of intrusion or humidity and other environmental issues, each alarm and transmitter combination has a unique identification number. When the alarm is received in the security control room, these identification numbers allow security to know exactly what type of alarm has been triggered, which helps staff to respond appropriately.

Typically a technician from the lending museum travels with the exhibit and sets up the alarm system at the host location. The system is designed to integrate with most alarm system software, which simply requires directing the host museum’s system to recognize the hardware.

Once the system has been installed, the American Museum of Natural History will brief the host-museum staff on the types of alarms and the expected response level for each. This training will cover possible causes for a vibration alarm, for example, and it will include a discussion of what the security team can expect to see on the monitoring screens should one of these alarms be triggered.

Traveling exhibits can generate publicity for both the hosting and lending museums. They also benefit the bottom line. But the security risks must be artfully addressed beforehand to protect the artifacts and both museums’ reputations.

Andrew Turk, CPP, is CEO & President of Turk Technologies, LLC, in New York City and is vice chairman of the ASIS International Museum, Library and Cultural Properties Council.



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