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Detroit Institute of Arts

Photo by Ian Dagnall, Alamy Stock Photo

Intelligent Surveillance Insights Protect Museum’s Art Collection

On any given day, 2,000 people visit the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and its 65,000-piece collection of artworks that span the course of human history. The museum covers 658,000 square feet, including public and private spaces, manned by a few hundred employees and volunteers. The space regularly hosts special weekend programs that attract thousands of visitors, and its popularity is only growing. However, its surveillance system was no longer keeping up.

When Eric Drewry, CPP, joined the DIA as its new director of security in 2015, one of the museum’s top priorities was updating its video surveillance and security technology. “That was just a priority coming in the door,” Drewry says of the institute’s legacy analog camera system. “It definitely needed an upgrade.”

Like most security professionals, Drewry understands that security is often perceived as a cost rather than an investment that offers a potential return. So, when the security team started looking for cameras and a system, they settled on what they would call the “Cadillac Plan”: cameras that could protect every piece in every gallery, paired with analytics that would provide the museum with actionable insights. The DIA ultimately landed on Axis Communications IP cameras, specifically multi-sensor cameras and AXIS F44 Main Units.

“What it came down to was Axis seemed to have a solution for just about everything,” Drewry says. “Everything that everybody else had and then a couple extra models in case you needed a different solution.”

With more than 100 galleries needing upgraded surveillance, the security team knew it was looking at a long installation process. However, selecting Acuity-vct’s Video Capture System (now Art Sentry) meant the new video management system would work with both analog and IP cameras, providing a unified platform to use throughout the transition.

The facility’s age also presented a challenge; the original structure was built in the 1920s, and two additions were erected 50 years later. Axis’s cameras enabled a smoother retrofit in the historic property by requiring only one network cable for four cameras in a given space. Each four-camera unit can in turn cover a 39-foot field of view, meaning one network cable could effectively cover entire galleries.

“We saved a tremendous amount of money just on the backend of things, with wiring and getting all the infrastructure in place because of these different products that Axis had offered,” Drewry says.

After nine months of an aggressive installation schedule—working seven days a week, coordinating with gallery rotations where possible—the museum was completely retrofitted.

Communication and coordination with the DIA’s curatorial, conservation, and collection management staffs helped shape the finished surveillance system. “One of the things that we’re looking at is either highly trafficked areas or exceptionally vulnerable objects,” Drewry says. The other departments helped security understand why certain pieces were more vulnerable than others—such as the fragility of the materials or a piece’s placement on a mount that could be bumped into. Now video-verified alerts can help security personnel mitigate the risk of damage to those works.

The museum strives to be open and welcoming, encouraging visitors to have personal experiences with the artwork. “In order to do that, they have to get up close and personal with it,” Drewry says. By working closely with the curatorial and conservation departments, security can customize surveillance coverage for galleries and objects on display to detect when visitors get too close—without placing physical barriers between them and the art.

Any time a visitor gets too close to a piece or installation, violating its protection zone, the system is triggered, creating an event featuring camera footage from before, during, and after the incident. The data from such scenarios, which is logged internally, yields valuable insights.

One work that draws particular attention—and frequent alarm-triggering close examination—is Death on the Pale Horse, a painting by American artist Benjamin West. The new camera system enabled the DIA team to draw valuable insights about the painting’s appeal and how best to protect it. The system provides data on policy violation alarms and builds actionable data for curators and security to use, including an incident “heat map” that can lay over the museum floorplan to highlight where the violations might cluster.

The team first considered that the volume of alarms may have been due to positioning the cameras at a less-than-optimal angle.

Even after the camera views were rearranged to reduce nuisance and unnecessary alarms, DIA security found that Pale Horse still registered as an extreme hot spot within the gallery.

Drewry worked with the DIA’s internal interpretation staff and external interpreters from the American Alliance of Museums for insight into the reaction triggered by the work. Due to those new insights, additional protective measures were installed around the painting to mitigate risks to its conservation. “It has also served as this really, really fascinating discovery that we’ve been able to make because of how we’ve been using this data from these systems,” Drewry says. Internal conversations about potential causes of the work’s attraction and targeted efforts to reduce the volume of proximity alarms had not occurred until the new surveillance system was installed.

The data from the cameras added value throughout the museum. It allowed DIA security to demonstrate how visitors engage with art. Those new insights resulted in initiatives that help to more effectively utilize and focus resources—sometimes simply posting additional information about the artist or work next to a piece helps visitors interpret it more deeply without needing to get too close.

The cameras also uncovered a security gap: a failure to communicate expectations with visitors. Visitors were unaware about how close to the art was too close. The welcome process for visitors now reminds guests to maintain a distance of at least 18 inches from the art, on top of the museum’s no-touch policy.

But if someone forgets that initial welcome warning—such as guests who gesture too close and too frequently—the security team members work to curb the behavior without disturbing other patrons’ experiences. Security staff working in the museum’s command center who receive policy violation alerts are trained to recognize and identify guests who are too often too close to the artwork. A member of the museum’s security department will approach such guests, reminding them about the 18-inch buffer zone and making them a little more aware of security throughout the facility. However, for valuable pieces or works that are particularly vulnerable to inappropriate interaction—such as an African throne popular with Instagram adventurers wanting to reenact Game of Thrones scenes—intrusions are met with automatic and very audible alerts.

“That has been really helpful because obviously we can’t be everywhere all at once, and [the alarms] help the visitors understand that we still see what you’re doing. It keeps people a little more honest,” Drewry says.