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Dynamically Securing Cultural Heritage

​The history of Raphael’s tapestries of St. Peter and St. Paul, created nearly 500 years ago for the Sistine Chapel, is itself a tapestry. The acclaimed artworks are said to have been stolen by mercenaries during the sack of Rome of 1527, pawned for cash to pay off Vatican debts, plundered by Napoleon in 1798, and subjected to attempts to extract precious the metals woven within. Despite the fragility of the tapestries, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was granted the honor to display these precious items for a 2010 exhibition, because the Vatican was confident that the museum had mastered its security stance.

These one-of-a-kind works, normally displayed in the Sistine Chapel, were on loan for six weeks for the first time, creating pressure on the museum to ensure that they would be protected from harm, says Vernon Rapley, head of security and visitor services for the museum. Moreover, during the exhibition, Pope Benedict the XVI would be in Great Britain, the first state visit by a Pope ever to that land.

“We considered the risk of damage by protest to be extremely high,” Rapley explained, with a “risk that someone could damage them by drawing on them or spray painting on them.” But because of the workmanship of the tapestries, the museum didn’t want to glaze them or distort them in any way to detract from the public’s ability to admire the artifacts. Instead, the Victoria and Albert Museum “introduced a number of very discreet security measures, including localized bag searching,” more guards in the area, motion detection on each tapestry, and a six-foot plinth to keep visitors a safe distance from the exhibit.

The staff were also trained to observe the visitors closely, looking for suspicious behavior, or movement, to prevent any damage to the tapestries. “On a number of occasions, staff made discreet interventions and may have prevented offenses,” Rapley says. “Our intention was to intervene early in an effort to deter an attack during the preparation stage; we always knew there was little that could be done once an attack was in progress.”

The Victoria and Albert Museum, like other institutions that house priceless works of art and exhibits, must focus on mitigating the threat against specific exhibits and collections. Technology, training, and professional networking are all part of the process in keeping irreplaceable collections intact and visitors safe.​


Museum security directors are under pressure to stay one step ahead of the criminals and those who wish to do their patrons harm. This is especially challenging for those who are responsible for large and diverse collections, such as Rapley, who came to the Victoria and Albert Museum after working at Scotland Yard for 24 years with 10 of those spent as the head of the Arts and Antiques Unit. 

The museum’s most popular location is in South Kensington where it gets just over 3 million visitors annually, but it also has a location in East London and a shop at Blythe House in West Kensington; the museum is hoping to open a new location at Olympic Park, former home of the London 2012 Olympic Games. 

With its collection of more than 2.3 million objects, ranging from paintings to jewels to silver to ceramics to Chinese jade, the museum has “every sort of object art that a criminal could be looking to target,” Rapley says. “We have collectible pieces, we have contemporary pieces, and we have historic pieces, so we have more problems in some ways, more risks to consider, than, for example, the National Gallery in the U.K., which only has paintings…and we suffer each time there’s [an art crime] trend.”

To keep up with those risks, Rapley has focused on shifting the security focus [at the Victoria and Albert Museum from one of a static policy to a more dynamic approach]. “It’s shifting from a static security provision, that could be both understood and learned by a criminal, to a very dynamic and fluid response where one hopes that they would come in each day and find a different layer of security, or a different security presence in a different place,” he explains.

His goal has “been to allow ourselves and other museums to not apply static textbook security, but to be able to respond to threats as we see them emerging and changing, and recognizing the very huge and diverse collections that the museums have and that certain types of objects will be different—threats from different criminals at different times and, therefore, allowing us to apply different security to those levels of threats.”

With approximately 1,000 CCTV cameras, more than 3,000 alarms, 24-hour on-site monitoring, and a 24-hour security guard presence already in place at South Kensington, Rapley focused his efforts on engaging the security officers to let them know the particular risks, at specific times, for individual artifacts, and having them constantly moving around the museum to create a more dynamic environment.

“If you’re moving [security officers] around and asking them to do different things and they can actually see there’s a reason for doing that, the reason that they’re bag searching is that there is a risk to those particular objects at this time from these people,” that creates a more secure environment, he says, because the officers see the reasoning behind what they’re doing. To keep security officers even more in the loop, the Victoria and Albert Museum briefs its officers on a daily basis about the new threats to the collection, people to look out for, and new steps taken to secure particular exhibits.

This approach was put to the test shortly after Rapley joined the Victoria and Albert Museum when there were an increasing number of thefts of Chinese objects from museums. Instead of increasing security throughout the museum in Kensington, Rapley decided security’s efforts were better off focusing specifically on the Chinese exhibit itself and set up a bag search for visitors going into that exhibit, stationed security personnel at the exhibit itself, and even removed some artifacts that were determined to be at a high risk of possible theft.

“We felt that searching every one of our visitors who comes in was unnecessary and a waste of security time, but applying the security check at the area that was most at risk was more effective, carried a harder message to our visitors, and hopefully allowed the rest of them to enjoy their visit,” Rapley explains.

Focusing on a specific security threat for an exhibit was also embraced at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium at its first outdoor exhibit for guests, says Gerardo Martinez, the aquarium’s director of security and life safety. The aquarium is located in downtown Chicago near many popular tourist attractions, including the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium, and Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears play. Because of this, there is a high amount of foot traffic near the aquarium and there were concerns about how to secure an outdoor stingray exhibit after hours at the aquarium.

The exhibit, Stingray Touch, was located on the aquarium’s south terrace in an 18,000-gallon pool and featured approximately 40 cownose rays and yellow rays. A main focus of the aquarium is to provide its marine life with a safe, healthy environment, while also remaining open and attractive to visitors. This presented security challenges, especially as the exhibit was outside.

“Initially, we felt the best approach to providing security without impacting the Stingray Touch open-air concept was to provide security personnel to be posted at all times in the exhibit,” Martinez says. However, after some additional assessments, Martinez decided to incorporate physical barriers, sensors, alarms, real-time video feeds, and around-the-clock security, along with some additional security measures, to establish a multilayer solution to keep the exhibit safe. This helped reduce costs and so far has prevented any breaches in security to the exhibit, Martinez adds.

One additional technology that museums are embracing to help keep exhibits secure and that Martinez thinks will become a new industry standard is video analytics. (See sidebar.) “Video analytics are providing great value and increasing surveillance and event detection effectiveness,” he adds. “It can be challenging for a security officer to detect undesirable activity or behavior when monitoring multiple security cameras at once.” ​


Even with the advances in video analytics and other technologies, the best security investment is a well trained staff that understands what the risks are and what their role is in keeping people and artifacts within the museum safe, Rapley says. 

“I see technology very much as only supporting the manned security effort—it can’t do anything else,” he explains. “In a museum the absolute goal has to be to prevent crime. Detection afterwards is not an issue. We don’t want to recover a Turner painting three years after it’s been taken because we have excellent CCTV footage. We want to stop it before it’s ever happened.”

The way to do that is by identifying criminals at the early stages as they prepare for an attack and those who are acting suspiciously at an early stage. Security officers at the Victoria and Albert Museum have been trained to identify suspicious behavior and to pass that information on for possible follow-ups, Rapley says. 

Security officers and other staff members undergo training offered by the Metropolitan Police Service and other services to recognize hostile reconnaissance. The Victoria and Albert Museum also uses private security advisers and conducts in-house training using the museum’s CCTV system and experience as the basis for learning. “We are working with technology providers as well to ensure that our CCTV system plays its part in detecting suspicious behavior,” Rapley adds.

After training, the security officers are briefed on a daily basis. The briefings include “telling them what the risks are, showing them photographs of people that are a danger to the collections, or the collection elsewhere,” Rapley says. This has made security staff good at picking out people who are acting in a suspicious way, and officers enjoy the role as it allows them to be part of the overall assessment, resulting in information coming in that otherwise might be missed. 

That information is then assessed by the security team to “determine whether or not someone is acting suspiciously because they’re lost, or because they’re planning a theft, or in fact because they’re planning a terrorist atrocity,” he continues. Those identified as acting suspiciously can be diverted to prevent an incident before it happens, such as when the tapestries from the Sistine Chapel were being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

If security staff feels that suspicious behavior is especially concerning, they’re trained to pass information on to the police to allow them to investigate the matter more fully. Passing that information on to the authorities is crucial because law enforcement then has the ability to investigate further if someone is planning a theft or a terrorist attack because the Victoria and Albert Museum is a “large crowded public space that would, unfortunately, be a potential target for a terrorist attack in London,” Rapley says.

The museum also shares suspicious activity with its networks within the museum community to help other institutions protect their exhibits and visitors by being proactive about possible threats.


Also a source for additional information on possible threats is a network of associations that focus on alerting the art and museum community to threats in their institutions and global trends in art crime. One organization, the London Museum Security Group, was formed by Rapley while he was at Scotland Yard and is a collective of 15 museums in the London area that are briefed four or five times a year by the police on what the current trends and problems are. 

He also formed the National Museum Security Group after he joined the Victoria and Albert Museum, which bands together 900 museums, libraries, archives, country houses, historic sites, and archeological sites in the United Kingdom, using a Web site and an alert system to circulate information quickly within the community and allows museums to securely report crimes to the police through their Web sites.

This helps reduce the amount of time it takes to file a report with the police and is used mainly for petty crime, including handbag and credit card thefts, which occur frequently in the museum community, Rapley says.

The United Kingdom isn’t the only locale to have these kind of networks; there are numerous organizations that museums can join globally to help inform other museums of security threats and keep track of trends. Dick Drent, corporate security manager for the Van Gogh Museum (VGM) in Amsterdam, serves on the board of the International Council of Museums’ International Committee for Museum Security (ICMS). Its members are typically directors of security of museums all over the world who come together at least once a year at an annual conference to share information and discuss trends.

“We gather knowledge from all the directors of security and we do workshops all over the world to help other museums to get their security in order,” Drent tells Security Management. One way that ICMS is changing museum security across the world is by spreading the philosophy of organizational security. The idea stems from the viewpoint that security stems not just from the security department itself, but from the organization as a whole.

“You don’t have good security if the wardrobe guy, or the cleaner, or the director, or the conservator…are not [aware of] the threats for the organization, for the museum, and how we can decrease them together,” he explains. This means making sure that everyone who works at the museum is aware of security threats and procedures, and that they follow them. 

ICMS stresses the importance of systems that support security. “The building has to support the organization; that’s the thing where you keep your art inside, or your cultural heritage. The electrical systems are there to support the organization when something is wrong and it signals to act on it,” Drent says. This is especially important if museums are using cameras and alarm systems that depend on electrical power should a crisis occur and the building lose power.

Improving the quality of museum security isn’t just a focus of ICMS, but is also one of the VGM itself as it exhibits paintings all over the world, Drent says. “We’re doing Japan, Korea, China, America, South America, Europe—you name it, we’ll be there with an exhibition of Van Gogh,” he elaborates. “We’re traveling a lot with our art so there are always special circumstances, how you protect your art when it’s outside the museum…and in that we are even stricter then we are for our own museums…the museum that it goes to has to be of a very high standard before we lend our art to another museum.”

While this may seem like a hindrance to museums looking to showcase some of the Van Gogh’s masterpieces, it can help museums in the long run. “If a museum has loans from the Van Gogh Museum, it has to have a very high standard on security, but also on climate, light, and other things,” Drent says. “The benefits for the other museums are that if you can pass the VGM standard, you probably have no problems with other loans anymore in the near future. A security director of a museum is usually happy with our recommendations to change some things in order to get a loan; it means he can improve his own setting in a way that would never be approved by the board if there was not a VGM exhibition.”

As the programs at these museums attest, increasing security measures and focusing on new tactics, whether it be a more engaged security officer staff or embracing new technology, museums are moving towards crime prevention, rather than post-crime apprehension. This is the real goal, says Rapley, and is a lesson he learned during his days in law enforcement. 

“Our objective there was to prevent crime…and actually my biggest achievement was that we reduced museum crimes by somewhere in the region of 70 percent in London,” he says. “We stopped them from happening and that was a far bigger achievement then recovering art.”



Jammy DeSousa, product manager at Tyco Security Products, focuses on American Dynamics victor Management Software for Unified Security (VMS) and VideoEdge, a line of network video recorders that lend themselves to some of the security problems that museums face and can incorporate video analytics to help meet their needs.

With victor, users can adopt a range of video analytic options using the VideoEdge platform. One of those analytics is Smart Search, which allows users to draw a box around an area where something may have disappeared—such as a small sculpture in an art museum. Once the box has been drawn, the user can run a search for when the object would have been removed or seen last, using analysis of the background and foreground of the video stream to identify times when there were changes. 

After the user initiates a search, victor pulls up a list of results that link back to video clips from the VideoEdge recorders and “those video clips will identify every time the software feels that something was removed from that scene, from that box that you drew,” DeSousa explains. “Usually, it can reduce the amount of time that you’d search through video to find out when something has been removed from that field of view from hours to minutes, or seconds sometimes.”

However, Smart Search can only be used after an item has already been removed and only if a camera happens to be focused on that particular item at that particular time, DeSousa said. Instead, another analytic can be used that alerts security in real time if an object is being removed, rightly named Object Remove.

In a museum setting, this could be applied to a sculpture or a piece of art that’s hanging on a wall—such as a painting or a tapestry—that the user would define as a region of interest. This creates a region, or a box, around that area and the camera “will actively learn and monitor that scene so that when it sees that object removed, it can then trigger an alarm,” DeSousa says, allowing security personnel to respond immediately if an object is being removed and giving them a chance to apprehend the person responsible before the artifact leaves the museum.

In addition to the video analytics, Tyco has made strides with its Software House card access system, which is combined with the victor Management Software to create the victor Unified Client, which allows museum security to “not only have verification of what’s going on, what’s happened in the camera field, but also know where people are entering and exiting in the facility, whether they should be there, whether they forced doors open, and be able to see all of that in real time in conjunction with their video system,” DeSousa says.