Skip to content

Photo by Ann Longmore-Etheridge

A Museum of the World and for the World

​On a rainy early spring morning, a group of security professionals made their way along Great Russell Street in fashionable, bustling Bloomsbury, London. They passed vehicle-distancing bollards, entered through the gate of a black iron fence, and crossed a large courtyard to reach a neoclassical building that dates from the Georgian period. 

After a security inspection, the visiting professionals traversed the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court with its soaring, tessellated blue glass roof. Once the open-air courtyard outside the Victorian reading room of the British Library, in 2000, the area was refashioned into an epic enclosure worthy of the treasure in the surrounding galleries.

“The British Museum is of the world, for the world,” David Bilson, CPP, head of security and visitor services, told the security professionals later, when they were congregated for a special program in the BP Lecture Theatre of the Clore Center for Education. It was the day before the opening of the ASIS International 15th European Security Conference and Exhibition, and Bilson was the host and first presenter.

“People sometimes think that the museum is about the history of Britain, but it’s not,” he explains. “It’s about the history of mankind.”

Just a few of humanity’s priceless objects that the British Museum cares for are the Rosetta Stone—a rock stele with the same inscription in three languages that helped crack the puzzle of Egyptian hieroglyphs; the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial treasure; the classical Greek Parthenon sculptures; colossal granite heads from the Ramesseum temple in Thebes, Upper Egypt; the 12th-century Lewis chessmen; an Easter Island gigantic figure (Hoa Hakananai’a); and a pair of Assyrian human-headed, winged bulls from Khorsabad, Iraq, which date to about 710 BC. (In February 2015, ISIS extremists destroyed a similar pair from the ancient city of Ninevah.)

At the British Museum, said Bilson, “We present items that date from 2 million years ago to the present day, in a collection that we are still continuing to build.”

The 18th century physician and hot-chocolate entrepreneur Dr. Hans Sloane laid the foundation for the collection. When Sloane died in 1753, he left everything to King George II. A public lottery raised funds for the original building. 

“We welcomed our first visitors here in 1759, so it is our 257th birthday,” Bilson added. Since then, the collection has grown to more than 8 million items.

“We are one of the nation’s treasure houses,” Bilson told his audience. “We now welcome 6.8 million visitors per year, which makes us the U.K.’s leading visitor attraction—and I say that not to be glib, but because it brings us major security and public safety issues. We are one of London’s ‘crowded spaces,’ so therefore we have security risks.”

Art thieves are also a threat. For example, Chinese art has skyrocketed in price at auction, allowing thieves to easily sell stolen items on the black market.  In 2012, the Metropolitan Police New Scotland Yard intercepted a gang that planned to target objects in one of the museum’s public galleries. Working with law enforcement agencies is a key aspect of security operations at the museum.

In addition, Bilson said the museum “is a place that transforms at night. If you stand in the front hall of the museum at 5 to 6 o’clock, you’ll see all my security colleagues escorting visitors out and thanking them for coming. At 6 o’clock, all the contractors come in, and by five minutes till 7 p.m., the whole place may be transformed with tables for dinners or corporate events…which is another demand on the security services that we have here.” 

Later that evening, the visiting security professionals would witness just such a transformation when the museum’s Egyptian Sculpture Gallery hosted an ASIS reception. The varied aspects of the museum’s security program were present and working, but even to the security practitioner guests, they were imperceptible.

Later, Bilson sat down with Security Management to discuss the security program at the museum and its myriad of security concerns.

The security context has changed tremendously for all museums, Bilson says, naming as examples the May 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, the foiled 2014 attack on the Louvre in Paris, and the March 2015 attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia.

During the last four years, the British Museum has invested in various aspects of its security infrastructure. One part of that investment was completed in early April 2016 when security “switched to our new digital radio system with much better coverage across our locations,” Bilson says.

Also in place now are vehicle defenses. “I hope as you came through the front gate this morning, you admired our vehicle-standoff bollards, which are a substantial upgrade in our protective resilience,” he adds.

In 2013, the museum became a construction zone with the creation of the World Conservation and Exhibition Centre on the estate’s northwest corner. It comprises scientific laboratories, office facilities, and a major new public exhibition hall, “which gives us a bigger, more flexible space than we have ever had, and below ground, we have a secure collections storage area,” he says.

Security was involved in the design for the new facility, Bilson notes. “In fact, we upgraded security substantially because of the nature of that building. So that has become our benchmark for security across the rest of the estate. It integrates all the modern technology of cameras, alarms, access control, and now the new radio system.”

Guard force. Since the Great Court was built 16 years ago, the number of annual visitors to the museum has jumped by nearly 3 million. 

“We are delighted to welcome more visitors but this of course impacts our operations; we want to ensure visitors have an enjoyable and safe visit,” Bilson says. 

Guidance on the management of events in the United Kingdom has changed, too. This has led to an ongoing modernization of the guard force, which comprises 300 full-time, proprietary officers.

“We are looking to take up the best of that advice, as well as lifting the security standards for all of our officers here, to a high level of professionalism,” he adds. “They are all great people, and we want to lift them up still further into new ways of working.”

“In the U.K., there are two categories of security officers: you can either be proprietary if you are working in your organization on your site, but if you provide a security service…it has to be licensed,” he explains. “At the moment we are also using licensed support while we go through our improvements.”

There is a security central command center in the museum that is staffed around the clock. 

“Not only are they doing a security watch, they are watching building systems and the condition of the building overnight, as well as the primary security function of protecting the collection,” Bilson points out.

Bag checks. While terrorism is a key threat to the museum, “The biggest challenge affecting us at the moment is the searching and screening of visitors,” Bilson says. “I’m not prec­ious about it. We’re working hard to improve upon it, but it is a challenge on a day when 20,000 visitors come through who are not timed in their entry, so we get these peaks in demand. More than 50 percent have some sort of bag with them.”

Visitor bag searching has been stepped up at the museum, resulting in an increase in the discovery of weapons.

“The majority of our visitors are of course law-abiding and are here to enjoy the collection,” Bilson says. “But I have been surprised that a minority have brought in inappropriate items that could pose a risk.”

To ensure that the museum can secure its premises from weapons brought in bags through the entrances, new visitor search facilities were recently installed outside the building.

The museum’s executive leadership supports decisions such as these. “We have great support here. The trustees, the board that oversees museum operations, are in favor of more security, doing more, but keeping a balance,” Bilson explains. “We want the visitors to know they are coming into a secure space, but to know that they are coming into a welcoming experience as well.”

Perimeter security. Bilson says that perimeter security depends upon the state of the museum at various times of day. 

For example, he explains that when the museum is on lockdown overnight, “we have clear definition of boundaries by way of walls and railings. They are guarded and protected by technology 24 hours per day. We use a range of technology measures, whether it is intrusion detection or surveillance or physical locks and access control.”

When the museum opens, the perimeter becomes porous, but with public boundaries, he says. “There are layers of defense within the site.” When the visitors leave, the perimeter hardens again.

“In explaining this to staff, I tell them we act in the same way as an airport—the secure air side and the public side,” he says. “So the status of areas within the museum changes, but broadly the back of house areas stay secure 24/7.”

Coordination between security and museum staff is “hugely important—that whole preplanning and coordination piece,” Bilson states. “We work very hard with facilities management and with events planning to think through levels of detail.”

Collection protection. Museum security protects its collection in much the same way that businesses protect their own assets. “Security technology helps, but we need people to intervene in situations as well,” Bilson says.

Like all large museums, temporary major exhibitions are staged at the museum, such as Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum, which ran throughout most of 2013 attracting 400,000 visitors, and the newest, Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, which closed in November and broke attendance records, according to Bilson.

The arrival and departure of special exhibitions is ongoing and security plays a large role. Before items are loaned to the museum, “we have to give an account to the lenders of how good our [security and environmental] processes are here,” Bilson says.

The museum also lends artifacts and even major collections to museums around the globe. 

“We apply all of our own security standards to the venue that the exhibition is going to,” Bilson explains. “Sometimes that is a learning experience for the people borrowing from us, and we try to help them get their security to such a standard that long-term they have a more resilient venue for themselves and can borrow more collections from around the globe.”

Travel. “The museum is constantly changing, always taking on new ideas and new things to do,” Bilson notes. “It is a busy organization that is studying and researching and constantly evolving.”

Bilson says that the museum’s policies and procedures for staff working in other nations weren’t anywhere near as robust as they should have been. 

An incident involving museum staff in another country caused the museum to rethink. “We asked ourselves, ‘Where are our people today? Do we know what countries they are in? Are they insured? Have we thought about their security and what measures have been taken?’” he explains.

Bilson discovered that there were free services tied to the museum’s insurance and travel services that had not been previously used, including “risk reports, country reports, access to services that we thought we might need one day…. Now we build emergency plans in case we need to bring teams home from overseas,” he says. “We put in place a good personal emergency plan for everybody, good support from London from the home department, and pre-travel risk assessments, advising staff before they go.”

Partnerships. The museum actively partners with police, “whether at the operational level or counterterrorism level, intelligence services, or security design advisors,” Bilson says. “We have strong links with specialists around art and antiques thefts and crime. We have a national museum security group, and most recently, we have established a European roundtable of CSOs so that we can link with our colleagues. After the terrorist events in Paris and Brussels, we supported our friends in that group, exchanging advice, and helping them with things that could be done in their museums.”

Security also works with the policing teams in the area around the museum estate. The museum interacts with its neighbors about emergency planning and special events that could affect them, such as when Night at the Mus­eum was filmed on site or movies are shown outside on the lawn on sum­mer evenings.

Bilson says that as a security case study, the British Museum is different because it houses a world collection that must be protected alongside large numbers of visitors and staff and a 200-year old heritage building.  

While the museum doesn’t discuss security systems in detail, visitors—he insists—want to know that security is in place. 

“Peaceful, law-abiding visitors to the museum are looking for that kind of protection,” Bilson says. “When we check their bags, we get thanked for doing so and know that it gives them reassurance.”   ​