What Do You Know About Museum Security?

by | Mar 15, 2024 | Blog, Preventive Conservation

Museum security is not just about safeguarding artwork and collections from physical threats; it’s about ensuring both the preservation and continued accessibility of cultural heritage. Because of this, a multifaceted approach is crucial. This article will explore some of the strategies that museums employ to protect irreplaceable artwork.

From the foundational step of risk assessment to the implementation of physical and technological security measures, a comprehensive, proactive approach to museum security is key. We hope you enjoy the following insights into the strategies and technologies that museums utilize to secure their artwork, ensuring that these artifacts remain safe and accessible to the public. 

1. Risk assessment and management

The first step in securing museum artwork is conducting a thorough risk assessment. This involves identifying potential hazards, evaluating the vulnerability of collections to these hazards, and determining the appropriate response measures. ICOM reports that effective risk management involves regular reassessment and updating of risk profiles to account for changes in the museum environment or the nature of threats.

2. Implementing physical protection measures

Physical protection measures are a crucial strategy for securing artwork in museums. These measures aim to safeguard artworks and collections from physical threats such as theft, damage, and environmental hazards. The American Alliance of Museums has a comprehensive guidebook on Suggested Practices for Museum Security, and some strategies are outlined below.

Secure entrance and exits

Ensure all exterior doors and hatches are equipped with good-quality, pick-resistant locks. Windows should be secured with locks that cannot be easily opened by breaking a small pane of glass, using cam locks as a supplementary measure. Doors with windows or adjacent to them should be secured with double cylinder locks, unless protection of historic fabric necessitates otherwise.

Lock collection storage areas

Doors leading to collection storage areas and other temporary storage locations should be secured with a high-quality deadbolt lock or an equivalent secure lock. This ensures that only authorized personnel can access these areas, minimizing the risk of unauthorized access or theft. If necessary, keep a record of who goes in and out of these areas, or a list of authorized personnel. When hosting visitors, have protocols for accompanying them into sensitive areas. If possible, install cameras that register the entry and exit points of collection storage areas.

Key control and retrieval

Practice sound key control and retrieval by having a written policy in place. Only those persons needing access to a key should be given that access. All keys issued should be signed for on a register to prevent unauthorized duplication. Keying systems should be of types that are difficult to reproduce except by a bonded locksmith, ensuring that only authorized personnel can access secured areas.

If personnel change, make sure they turn in their keys. If they do not, you might just have to change all your locks. Check out this 2022 thread about uncontrolled keys in the Museum Collections Management Facebook Group for some solutions that some heritage professionals have found. One group member suggested the TRAKA 21 Security Key Management System, which locks keys into place and tracks their movement with RFID technology.

Regular inspection and maintenance

Just like with environmental monitoring and maintenance of building system controls, it is very important to regularly inspect and maintain all physical security measures, including locks, alarms, and surveillance systems. After each renovation, installation, or redecoration, ensure that all physical security measures are inspected for obstructions or other related problems, and make corrections immediately. This proactive approach ensures that the security systems remain effective in protecting the museum and its collections.

Educate and train staff

Educate and train both your permanent museum staff and your volunteers on the importance of physical security measures and their role in protecting artwork and collections. This includes training on how to properly secure doors and windows, use keys responsibly, and respond to security incidents.

Regular training sessions can help reinforce the importance of these measures and ensure that staff are prepared to respond effectively in case of an emergency. Here is another useful PDF resource from the Texas Historical Commission which includes some important guidance on active shooter situations in museum settings. Be mindful that training people on how to deal with potentially traumatic situations can be very stressful and mentally demanding. Reach out to your colleagues to share experiences on how to manage this in the most constructive way possible.

3. Fire protection

The UK-based Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries published a freely available second edition of Security in Museums, Archives, and Libraries: A Practical Guide (2003) which outlines several key strategies for fire protection in museums. If you want another resource, check out Chapter 9 in the National Parks Service Museum Handbook (2019) on Museum Fire Protection.

  • Regular maintenance and inspection: As always, regular inspections are essential for identifying and addressing potential fire hazards, such as misuse of electrical appliances or careless disposal of cigarette ends. These inspections should be part of a comprehensive housekeeping regime to prevent fires.
  • Fire detection systems: Having an automatic fire detection system that can quickly identify the presence of fire is crucial. These systems should be capable of detecting smoke and/or heat and can trigger local audible alarms or send activations over telephone lines to initiate responses. Lately, it is even possible to get systems that use cameras with artificial intelligence to detect actual flames based on their movement patterns so that you don’t need to wait for the smoke or heat to detect a fire. Head over to our community to check out the webinar we co-hosted with Ciqurix.
  • Sprinkler systems: The use of sprinkler systems is recommended, especially in light of increasing concerns about the potentially destructive consequences of accidental discharge. A ‘dry’ or ‘pre-action’ system is sometimes suggested, where pipework is charged with air and only fills with water upon activation, reducing the threat of accidental discharge but acknowledging the slower response time in real fires. However, these systems also have higher maintenance costs and can experience delays before setting off. If you want to learn more about fire suppression, watch this webinar recording from a C2C Care webinar on Fire Suppression for Museums.
  • Hand-held fire extinguishers: The appropriate types of hand-held fire extinguishers should be chosen based on the areas where different types of fires are likely to occur. Contact your local Fire Prevention Officer to provide advice on this matter. Remember that fire extinguishers are only effective if a fire is still very small, and that they can also be there as tools to help you get out of a burning building situation. Leave the rest of the fire-fighting to the professionals.
  • Fire prevention measures: The guide highlights the importance of reducing fire risks through design, ensuring that buildings are constructed or adapted to minimize the risk of fire and to prevent its spread. This includes the use of fire-retardant materials and maintaining environmental conditions that are conducive to fire prevention.
  • Risk assessment for fire threats: Encourage your managers to get a professional assessment of fire risks, including the maintenance of fire extinguishers, keeping exit routes clear, and identifying risks arising from smoking, old wiring, electrical installations of unknown standard, and the unnecessary or unprotected storage of inflammable materials. This is yet another reason to become buddies with your facilities and operations team!
  • Countering the threats: Strategies to counter fire threats include ensuring buildings have strong physical security, a means of detecting unauthorized intrusions, secure arrangements for displays and exhibitions, and well-defined fire and security procedures.

4. Innovative museum security technology

Museums are increasingly turning to technology for artwork protection. For instance, the security company, Art Sentry, uses technology that creates an invisible zone around each piece of art, and uses a camera-based motion-detection system to alert visitors when they enter this zone, discouraging them from touching or moving too close to the artwork. This technology not only prevents damage but is also meant to enhance the visitor experience by reducing stressful interactions with security forces. It’s never a pleasant experience when you feel a docent or security guard is tracking all your movements and getting ready to tell you off!

Other systems such as Art Guard provide instant movement detection of stationary artwork and museum assets. Their MAP (Magnetic Asset Protection) system operates in two main modes: magnetometer and accelerometer. In magnetometer mode, a tiny rare-earth magnet is attached to the surface of the artwork, and a wireless sensor detects the movement of this magnet. This mode allows for broad coverage and can be used in both hanging and seated objects. In accelerometer mode, the sensor is attached directly to the back of a painting, providing a more flexible solution for environments with varying magnetic conditions.

5. Disaster preparedness 

Disaster planning for museums is a critical component of ensuring the safety and preservation of their irreplaceable collections. Since natural and man-made disasters can strike without warning, having a comprehensive disaster preparedness and emergency response plan is essential. This plan should not only address the immediate needs of staff, visitors, structures, and collections during an emergency but also outline the steps to protect, evacuate, and recover collections.

The necessity of such planning is underscored by the unique vulnerabilities museums face, including the potential for damage to historical artifacts, the risk of theft, and the importance of preserving cultural heritage.

By developing, implementing, and practicing a comprehensive disaster plan, museums can better prepare for and respond to emergencies, safeguarding their collections and ensuring the continued operation of their institutions. The American Alliance of Museums has published Developing a Disaster Plan which details important elements for establishing a disaster plan.

Some of the required elements of a Disaster Preparedness/Emergency Response Plan are: 

  • Coverage of Emergencies and Threats: The plan must include preparedness and response plans for all relevant emergencies and threats, including natural, mechanical, biological, and human threats.
  • Needs of Staff, Visitors, Structures, and Collections: The plan should address the specific and immediate needs of staff, visitors, structures, and collections during an emergency.
  • Protection, Evacuation, and Recovery of Collections: It must specify how to protect, evacuate, and recover collections in the event of a disaster.
  • Evacuation Routes and Assembly Areas: The plan should include detailed evacuation routes and assembly areas for people. It should also include information on where collections will be taken and how.
  • Individual Responsibilities: It must assign individual responsibilities for implementation during emergencies. It must take into account that not everyone originally in the plan will be available in an emergency, and that people may be reacting in unexpected ways, or not be performing at their best under duress. It should also include information about resting time and food breaks for the teams involved.
  • Emergency and Recovery Services Contact Information: The plan should list contact information for relevant emergency and recovery services. Allies and providers should have been contacted in the past and be ready to respond and support if necessary.
  • Floorplans: Including floorplans, preferably with key points like emergency exits and fire extinguisher locations marked, is crucial.

We also highly recommend participating in in-person disaster training such as those offered by Rebecca Kennedy from Curae collections Care, LLC. Real-time situations never look the way they do on paper, so experiencing fake disasters under controlled conditions is the best way to be prepared to respond when the unexpected inevitably happens. If you are interested, read more about how conservators can help during Disaster Preparedness and Recovery and don’t miss our webinar recording of what to do during a water emergency.


The protection and security of artwork in museums and art galleries extend beyond the physical safeguarding of the artifacts themselves. It encompasses a multifaceted approach that includes risk assessment, physical protection measures, fire protection strategies, the potential adoption of innovative security technologies where the budget allows it, and the development of comprehensive disaster preparedness plans.

Each of these play a crucial role in ensuring the safety and preservation of cultural heritage and invaluable artworks. By employing a combination of human vigilance, advanced technology, meticulous planning, and continued commitment to train staff, museums can significantly enhance their security posture, safeguarding their collections against the myriad of threats that exist in today’s complex and interconnected world.

Join our community of collections care professionals where you can connect with your peers and exchange valuable information on how you address museum security.

If you have any questions about environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, or just want to talk about preventative conservation, please reach out to us! Don’t forget to check out our blog or join our community of collections care professionals where you can discuss hot topics, connect with your peers or even take a course to get familiar with the Conserv platform.

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