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Security guards walk through a gallery during a press preview of a renovated European painting wing at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on 16 November 2023. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith, AFP, Getty)

The Art of Concierge Guarding: How Museums Merge Security with Visitor Services

A guard’s presence can convey a sense of security—the uniformed private officer taking note of people as they approach valuable items to prevent theft or patrolling the grounds to deter a physical breach.

However, an increasing number of security leaders are also using guards to support customer or visitor services, not dissimilar to a hotel’s concierge, with the goal of improving the overall experience for residents, visitors, or clients.

The World Security Report 2023, published by Allied Universal, found that approximately 90 percent of security leaders increasingly place value in people skills over physical attributes like strength.

“More than nine in 10 CSOs agree that the following skills are highly desirable: emotional intelligence at 95 percent, a higher education degree at 96 percent, and the ability to speak multiple languages at 94 percent,” according to the report.

Allied Universal’s report, which surveyed 1,775 chief security officers in 30 countries, found that 67 percent of respondents rated customer service skills as extremely important among frontline officers. In comparison, only 49 percent of respondents said that a background in military or law enforcement was extremely important.

Ben Olalde, vice president of retail locations for Allied Universal, noted a significant shift in what retail clients hope to accomplish with guards—moving away from having guards directly confront, accuse, and attempt to apprehend visitors suspected of stealing from a store.

“It’s a lot different than it was back in the day because so many retailers aren’t even allowed to make a stop,” Olalde says.

Retailers now want security officers to approach customers and visitors with ill will with the approach of “customer service them to death,” Olalde says. The goal is to avoid violence altogether by having a strong security presence with a customer service focus, which will ideally deter theft and future attempts to steal from a store, stop a confrontation from turning violent, or even curb potential litigation.

In Portland, Oregon, local angler Nguyen Cao is suing a bait and tackle store and the guard company it hired, claiming the store’s manager and a security guard falsely accused Cao of shoplifting and then forcibly removed him from the store, assaulted, and threatened him. Cao said he was racially discriminated against when the store’s manager confronted him in January 2023, accusing Cao—a regular customer of the store—of shoplifting, according to the lawsuit.

Although Cao offered to be searched and asked to stay until police arrived to investigate, the manager instead chose to evict Cao from the store. The store’s guard, upon orders to remove Cao, threatened to arrest him, “pushed him through the front doors, threw him to the ground, and then pointed a weapon” at Cao as he got into his car to leave. Cao, who is also accusing the companies of negligence in use of force, is seeking up to $250,000 in damages in the suit against the store, which is a local chain, and the security services company. (Nguyen Cao v. Fisherman’s Marine Supply, Inc., Talon Protection Group LLC, et al., Circuit Court of Oregon for Multnomah County, No. 23-cv-20230, 2023)

An officer stopping someone and accusing him or her of theft could leave a retailer open to a lawsuit if the officer was incorrect. “It’s a very litigious world,” Olalde says. 

Welcome to the Museum

While concierge security is a growing interest in several sectors, museums have already been finding a balance between offering visitors a welcoming and approachable atmosphere with the stoic responsibilities of safeguarding a building, its cultural artifacts, staff, and the people who come to admire the artifacts.

“You’re there to help guide the experience, from the screening process to wayfinding around the museum,” says Robert Carotenuto, CPP, PCI, PSP, a former adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice with roughly 30 years of experience in museum security. “And some officers are very knowledgeable about the institution that they work for and very well educated about the arts, so they can sometimes educate some of the visitors.”

Some museums, including the Guggenheim in New York City and the Baltimore Museum of Arts have highlighted their security officers' knowledge about art on social media and in guard-curated exhibits.

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While a traditional security approach still applies—with a focus on protecting the artwork and artifacts—museum guards’ other responsibilities overlap with visitor services to improve visitors’ experience there and encourage them to return.

“It’s difficult to balance the need for a welcoming atmosphere with the preservation of valuable cultural assets,” notes Doug Beaver, CPP, director of security for the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C. “It’s essential to create a memorable and educational visit for our visitors to NMWA.”

A visitor services approach is one that can help both visitors and guards as soon as someone walks into a museum, according to Carotenuto. Initial screenings at museums have become more involved in recent years, but advances in technology can cut down on wait times or allow for a hands-off approach. A guard’s attitude in being welcoming instead of appearing suspicious can also support a guest’s overall experience, letting the patron feel welcomed instead of scrutinized.

This can be conveyed through tone of voice and body language and much as what is verbally conveyed to visitors.

“You want to treat people the way you would want to be treated,” Carotenuto says. “If you go out someplace, do you want people to be yelling at you and nasty to you? No.”

This welcoming environment can also help guards, encouraging positive interactions between visitors and staff instead of fostering a sense of surveillance or hostility. Those positive interactions are more likely to result in a safer workplace for the museum’s employees, according to Carotenuto, and can decrease the chances of an altercation where staff are targeted. Ultimately, these welcoming interactions can also support the museum’s overall brand reputation, conveying an open and friendly culture to visitors and encouraging them to return.

“Every institution has a brand. It’s how you look and how you want to be perceived, so your physical composure needs to match all of that, too,” Carotenuto says.

The focus on interpersonal skills in concierge security doesn’t rule out the use of technology, though. Recent research from ASIS International and the Security Industry Association (SIA) that surveyed more than 1,700 chief security officers in 30 countries found that security officers are now required to leverage technology to “augment and enhance the guarding operation,” according to Complexities in the Global Security Market: 2024 through 2026.

The guarding market is using technology to “ensure that guards are more efficient and, operationally, spend time on higher-value activities,” the report said.

For instance, the NMWA underwent a top-to-bottom renovation in 2021. Before the museum reopened in October 2023, Beaver invested in a communications system for his team of 35 security personnel. The system features a translation function, able to identify and translate between 21 different languages. 

“It bridges that communication gap that we’ve had with international visitors in the past,” Beaver says. “…This is really a very good piece of technology that not only allows our security team and visitor management team to communicate amongst each other, but it allows us to communicate with our international visitors as well.”

When a visitor approaches a guard with a question, but is unable to effectively communicate it in English, the guard can press a combination of buttons on the communication device, triggering both the device’s language identification function and its function to translate the question or phrase to English. The device can also translate a response given from the guard in English to the other language, allowing the two parties to communicate successfully.

Training for Balance

When training security staff for NMWA, Beaver says he incorporates elements of visitor management and promotes learning about the artwork in the galleries, sometimes inviting the artists to share stories about the pieces with the guard force.

“Our security team would have a lot of information, fun-to-know stuff, to be able to tell visitors,” Beaver says. These training sessions translated into better experiences for the visitors who submitted feedback, complimenting the security staff’s knowledge of the collection.

“That’s what it’s all about in museums—have the best possible visitor experience that they can offer,” he adds.

There are certain elements that can help balance a facility’s team if the organization wants to take a more concierge approach to security, and these tenets can extend far beyond cultural property protection.

Along with covering foundational aspects of cultural security, such as how to protect different artwork, the training modules Beaver developed place an emphasis on implementing an effective visitor management program, which calls for treating every visitor with the same level of respect and giving each person “an equal opportunity to enjoy a meaningful cultural experience,” Beaver says.

“We don’t initiate with visitors because we understand that many visitors are coming in here to engage and interpret the artwork, and that takes some pretty deep thought processes. So, that’s one of the ways that we ensure that our visitors enjoy their visit here,” Beaver says.

And while guards at NMWA do not approach visitors to engage in idle conversation, they are trained to be not only ready to respond to questions from visitors, but also to be happy and excited at the interaction.

To accomplish this, Beaver emphasized interpersonal skills in the training modules, including active listening, communication, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence.

“Conflict resolution is an important part of it, one that includes understanding the escalation cycle, situational awareness, and other strategies that can be used to calm a situation before it gets out of hand,” Beaver adds.

Conflict resolution has previously been helpful in mitigating instances where someone enters the museum with the intent to harass visitors instead of to appreciate the artwork.

“Our location is such that we on occasion have undesirable situations that take place in the museum that require soft skills and de-escalation skills, and that’s why this training is so important,” Beaver says. Every museum employee is required to undergo conflict resolution training.

This training came into play in February 2024 when someone experiencing a mental health crisis assaulted two people from New York who were visiting the NMWA, according to Beaver. The museum’s visitor service team assessed the situation and asked the perpetrator to leave.

“The individual refused to leave when asked, and at that point a visitor services team member engaged the individual in a calming conversation—one of the strategies taught in conflict resolution training,” Beaver says.

A member of the team called a security manager, who continued to engage in conflict resolution and de-escalation strategies until the person left the museum without causing an additional incident.

Active listening can also support de-escalation efforts, helping defuse a tense situation.

“Let that person speak instead of interrupting them—let them get it out, hear their point of view. And then you can use that because now you understand what their issue is,” Carotenuto says.

Once a guard understands the issue at hand, he or she is usually better able to address the problem in a way that may satisfy all parties. In some instances, giving a person the chance to voice their frustrations and know that he or she is heard is enough to calm a situation entirely.

Beyond interpersonal skills, other elements can support organizations that want to offer concierge security.

“You want a diverse group of people, and we have to admit that security officers [work in] extremely diverse communities,” Carotenuto notes.

Throughout his career, Carotenuto worked for various cultural properties based in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, New York City, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The New York Botanical Garden, and The Shed.

“When you start to talk to your staff, you realize how much they know and what their life experiences are and how they can share that. …I think that that is conveyed to visitors as they walk through your door and walk through your galleries,” he says. 

Handling Unwelcome Behavior

While guards are historically trained in how to deal with a potentially violent attacker or someone attempting to steal an artifact from a museum, cultural properties are high-profile places, and the threat landscape now includes activists and protesters.

These protesters may try to amplify their message by using a museum or one of its popular artworks. To accomplish this, protesters have defaced or threatened artwork through various means—including smashing protective glass or throwing paint, spray paint, tomato soup, mashed potatoes, pumpkin soup, or glue at a famous work of art. In 2022, there were at least 38 incidents where environmental protesters staged a disruption in a museum in the name of climate issues.

While most of these recent incidents occurred in Europe, the United States has not been immune from these demonstrations. In late 2023, an environmental activist defaced a memorial to a Black Civil War soldier at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The activist used red paint to vandalize the memorial, resulting in more than $700 in damage.

For security, this issue is a thorny one. Liquids like paint, glue, and food can be hidden on a person and would not be flagged as a weapon, even during screening processes.

“There are new challenges where protesters have posted on social media that they will disregard security officer instructions, that they will look to bypass screening measures,” Carotenuto adds.

This strains security guards’ efforts to welcome all visitors, because their efforts to ensure a safe environment will be divided with the need to monitor for activists hoping to slip in with an item that could damage artwork.

Another challenge arises when one or more protesters are successful in staging an incident, especially if the activist refuses to comply with security officers’ instructions. From the museum’s perspective, these incidents can damage artwork and damage the museum’s reputation. These events can also influence visitors to avoid the museum in the future and potentially discourage others from visiting.

Beaver adds that he has been working with other museum security directors in the New York and Washington, D.C., areas to develop a strategy to deal with protesters and minimize a negative visitor experience.

The first step is to quickly and calmly separate visitors from the site of the demonstration, which lessens protestors’ ability to use the disruption as a platform for their message, he says. In some instances, security team members instruct visitors to leave the gallery and set up a separation panel around the activists. This tends to calm down these situations, and without an audience, the protesters often are ready to leave, Beaver says.

Because these activists are generally non-aggressive and focused on relatively peaceful, if obnoxious, attempts to create a platform for a cause, there is an emphasis on maintaining peaceful interactions with museum staff. Carotenuto points out that if museums search for opportunities to connect with activists targeting their galleries, it can create an ultimately positive relationship between the two parties.

Searching social media for flags or other indicators that the museum has become a target of a planned demonstration can at least prepare a security team for the presence of protesters. But it can also be used to initiate an outreach. The museum can ask the group to avoid damaging the artwork while protesting at the museum. Giving activists space for a dialogue can also open the door for a productive relationship, potentially shifting the dynamic towards a more positive and respectful interaction between the protesters and members of the security and visitor services teams, according to Carotenuto.

“Security is all about mitigation. We don’t want any objects to be damaged in any way,” he adds.

How Balance Can Support the Brand

Both Beaver and Carotenuto point to how a concierge security approach can reinforce an organization’s larger goals—including brand reputation, workplace safety, and repeat business.

“Museums and cultural properties are all about earned income,” Carotenuto says.

Using a concierge security approach in museum settings increases the likelihood of repeat visitors. Creating a respectful and welcoming environment towards visitors is also likely to increase workplace safety.

“The side effect is that if you treat people well and they feel respected and heard, they won’t be angry with you. If they’re not angry with you, chances are that they’re going to show respect and reverence for not only your institution, but for your staff and the works of art that you’re safeguarding,” Carotenuto says.

When training members of his security and visitor services team, Beaver stresses to them how influential a negative experience can be, and the kind of impact it can have on a museum.

He points out how, especially in the age of social media, just one visitor’s negative experience can generate a “compound effect,” with one tweet or post able to be reshared or reposted countless times. “One complaint can mushroom out into hundreds of complaints,” Beaver says.

Instead, the goal for these teams is to create “the best possible visitor experience that they can offer,” Beaver adds. “It really is a balancing act, but we work very closely with visitor services to accomplish that.”


Sara Mosqueda is associate editor for Security Management. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or on X, @XimenaWrites.