Priorities in Museum Security

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What should Museum Security be about?

Is it protecting the Picasso? Or is it ensuring the safety of those who come to view it? When making decisions about the security of a cultural properties institution, it’s important to figure out what your priorities are.

The following is meant to lay out some of the most important things to think about when developing a museum’s security plan. As you’ll see, almost everything below revolves around the human element of security. While it is of course essential to protect the exhibits on display, in transit, or in storage, the safety of museum employees and visitors comes first and foremost.

Fire/Life Safety

When someone calls a masterpiece painting “priceless,” it’s hyperbole. When someone says the same about a human life, it’s literal. Any institution open to the public has a moral and legal obligation to keep that public safe while visiting said institution. Museums, often consisting of large buildings in which first-time visitors can easily get turned around or lost, need to be certain that they have a reliably effective plan in case of emergency.

What makes for a reliably effective plan? “Good in theory” isn’t good enough when it comes to preparing for an emergency. That’s why any security provider for a cultural properties institution needs to run regular drills to make sure that, in the event of a fire, earthquake, or other disaster, each and every officer is prepared to act—and act under pressure—to successfully handle the situation and, if necessary, evacuate museum guests and employees. One has to keep in mind that, at a museum, the majority of the people present are visitors, not employees, and so are likely to be at least partially unfamiliar with their surroundings. The guests certainly aren’t running drills themselves. Because of this, the security officers must be especially prepared to make up for the fact that the people they’re helping, in all likelihood, won’t be prepared at all.

The training is never finished. While a period of intensive initial training, covering areas such as fire/life safety, evacuation, first aid/CPR, management of aggressive behavior (MOAB), access control, and International Foundation for Cultural Property Protection (IFCPP) certification, should be completed within an employee’s first month on duty, an effective security plan will have a system of ongoing training to keep officers fresh and forward-thinking. Ongoing training can include guest lectures, role-playing exercises, emergency drills, and walk-throughs of all shows before opening. In addition, daily training by the supervisor, including basic questions asked to each officer such as, “Where are the nearest two fire escapes,” and, “Name an artist in your gallery,” plus refresher questions on previous training courses, will maintain a sense of awareness, ensuring that all officers are ready to help when needed.

Customer Service

Considering that security officers are often posted throughout almost every room in a museum, it’s important to consider the nature of the interactions between security officer and museum patron. When a visitor is lost, looking for a certain exhibit, or in need of assistance, they turn more often than not to the nearest security officer. Even when a museum uses the services of a contract security provider, the security officers need to act as representatives of the museum, catering their interactions with the guests accordingly.

Officers need to have a first-hand understanding of the visitor experience. As part of their training, officers should spend time as visitors themselves and make an effort to understand and communicate what that experience is like. They can use this practice to put themselves in the visitors’ shoes when the time comes to help someone in need. Whether it’s finding the special exhibit or helping a visitor understand why they can’t use flash photography, an intimate knowledge of the museum from the perspective of both visitor and employee is essential to carrying out the customer service–side of an officer’s duties.

For a visitor, a negative interaction with a security officer is a negative museum experience. This can translate to poor word-of-mouth, ultimately resulting in lowered attendance and lost money. If this trend gets out of hand, it can seriously limit the exhibitions a museum is able to show. Positive interactions between officers and visitors can be fostered by developing the officers’ sense of both the museum’s layout and the challenges of navigating it for the first time. Encouraging the officers to find their own favorite exhibits in the museum can help them develop a stronger connection to the institution as a whole, strengthening their ability and enthusiasm in aiding museum patrons.

A common obstacle to cultivating this sort of engagement between security officers and museum patrons is how much time it requires. Anyone with experience managing this sort of institution, or even simply visiting one, knows that every museum contains such a wealth of knowledge that no one can develop an intimate understanding of it on first arrival. Museums who rely on in-house security often wrestle with high turnover rates among their officers, effectively eliminating the chance for officers to become experts on the museum. A solution to this problem is outsourcing to a contract security provider that places a strong emphasis on employee retention. A security firm that offers its employees robust benefits packages and opportunities for career advancement is more likely to have a lower turnover rate, allowing for a higher level of expertise among its officers.

Preparing for the Worst

Sadly, the threat of an active shooter is one that must be reckoned with when managing any space with crowds of people. It isn’t pleasant to think about, but if you don’t think about it, you can’t prepare for it. According to a recent FBI report covering the years of 2000–2013, the frequency of active shooter situations has more than doubled since the turn of the millennium. During the first seven years covered by the study, there were on average 6.4 incidents per year. Over the second seven years, the rate of incidents rose to 16.4.1 This increase in frequency means that it is essential to the security of any museum to have a plan in place to prevent and to resolve the unthinkable.

When the difference of a few seconds can mean lives saved or lost, nothing can be left up to chance. As with natural disasters, the emergency response plan for an active shooter needs to be effective and practiced to the point of perfect efficiency. The chain of communication between security officers and the police, the speed with which an area is either locked down or evacuated, and the readiness of medical first responders all contribute to mitigating the danger in a worst-case scenario. If any part of this process is poorly planned or practiced, if any call happens one second later than it should, there could be irrevocable consequences. There is no room for error.

Workplace Violence Prevention

No one wants to prepare for the possibility of violence committed by a colleague, because no one wants to acknowledge it as a possibility at all. However, as with active shooter situations, pretending that it can’t happen isn’t an option. On top of the normal danger that faces all workplaces, museums have the added risk that a controversial exhibit could potentially provoke violent actions intended as political statements. These risks can be greatly mitigated through effective training that equips employees with safety essentials such as the “Run, Hide, Fight” approach, which teaches employees to run if possible, hide if not, and fight as a last resort. Knowing and practicing this technique will keep employees significantly safer in the face of workplace violence.

Code Adam

The moment a child goes missing, that child must become priority number one. All museums need to have a Code Adam or similar program in place to ensure that any missing children will be found and returned to their parents safe and sound without fail. This involves a call going out the minute a parent reports a lost child, resulting in designated employees taking up an immediate search, while others watch all entrances and exits to prevent the child from leaving or being taken from the facility. Security officers are trained in how to work with upset parents and children and, should the child be found with a stranger, resolve the situation without escalation of risk to the child.

A competent security provider will be ready and able to work with a museum to create a missing child program tailored to the site’s specific needs. Considering the number of children who visit cultural properties institutions each year, from school trips to family outings, there’s no question that these institutions need to have an intelligent protocol for establishing a search net with all possible speed, efficiency, and effectiveness.

The Specific Needs of the Institution

Every museum is unlike any other on earth. The unique architecture, the diverse crowds, and, of course, the collections themselves, make each museum one-of-a-kind. Understandably, a one-of-a-kind institution isn’t going to be well served by a one-size-fits-all security provider. Cultural properties institutions who wish to utilize contract security services should look for a provider who will tailor their services to the needs of the institution. A museum with a large campus may require more vehicle patrol, while one situated in a densely populated urban area may need more intensive access control. If the security services offered don’t align with the requirements of an institution, then dangerous lapses could occur in coverage. The right contract security provider will do everything they can to develop a plan that suits your needs, rather than trying to sell you one that’s convenient for them.


A museum is a unique kind of establishment, but when it comes to security, there’s one thing that it has in common with anywhere else: the people must be treated well and kept safe. This isn’t to say that a museum doesn’t pose its own unique challenges when pursuing this simple ideal. On the contrary, these challenges—such as maintaining active awareness among such a high volume of people, or seeing to it that the visitors are able to view the exhibits freely while simultaneously protecting the exhibits from damage or theft—call for a deft hand in developing a security plan. They require specialized knowledge and experience, and they require an understanding of what’s most important. When it comes time for you to make major decisions regarding the security of your cultural properties institution, keep these priorities in mind.

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