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Museum Re:source

by msecadm4921

In our July 2003 issue we mentioned a new security manual for museums and libraries. In our August 2003 issue, we heard from the man who compiled it, and how it has relevance to building security generally.

Iain Slessor, National Security Advisor for re:source, the advisory body for for museums, archives and libraries, does get to travel abroad. Lately he was in Vienna, where a museum had scaffolding up for cleaning of stone-work. A thief took advantage of it to enter the building; the alarm went off but security staff took it to be false. The alarm was raised four hours later, and Austrian police are looking for someone who took a priceless exhibit.

Draw for criminals

It’s Iain’s job to advise UK museums and similar buildings to help secure their assets. Hence the manual ‘Security in museums, and libraries – a practical guide’, the second edition of a 1998 publication covering only museums and galleries. Iain chairs the Museums and Galleries Security Group, 70 or so security managers who contributed to the manual. The group shares good practice. From the first page, the general security reader can see parallels between museums and other fields, such as retail and buildings in general. “Publicity material draws criminals as well as audiences to material on display. During open hours this can lead to a smash and grab style attack, but more often advantage is taken of inadequate protection arrangements to lever open display cases or remove items from open displays. In libraries and archives, theft is often committed by those who take advantage of having ‘hands on’ access to the collections.” (You could argue that the double threats of customers who are invited onto the premises, and staff insiders, mirrors loss prevention in retail, and to reinforce this many museums have shops.) The manual goes on to warn that a contractor, or plausible researcher removing small items on repeated visits, may be stealing. “While extraordinary events will draw intensive media attention, it should not be forgotten that day to day criminal activity, which attracts far less publicity, is a more common threat.”

Headlines prompt review

Often it is indeed a theft in the headlines that prompts a museum to review security – again, not a trend confined to the historic buildings sector. Or, to take advantage of the Government Indemnity Scheme and to borrow from the national collection, a venue will need to meet the general conditions laid down by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). For high-risk items that may mean 24-hour guarding. Iain calls the manual “a first step guide for someone who is given responsibility for security in a museum or gallery”. As that implies, in regional and smaller museums especially the responsible person may lack experience in security – CCTV, for instance – and may have other job roles, in building management for example. The manual is not intended as an encyclopaedia, to be read from cover to cover, Iain says, but as a reference guide – for alarms, cases, doors, windows, CCTV and invigilation, and manning practices.

Thefts of renown

UK museums have had a national security adviser for many years, who at first had a national focus, concerned for example with the secure transit of loan exhibits in transit from London to the regions or abroad. As the manual says, an item’s renown is no protection – the guide going on to list the theft of Constable sketches from the stores of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a Cezanne taken from teh Ashmolean in Oxford. Rather, “the threat is very much influenced by the attractiveness, value and portability of the collection”. Given that there is still a market for such goods, the threat is not going away. Risks are not only security-related. Early on the manual says: “Each historic institution should have a risk assessment from time to time.” Fire is a risk too – a thief may only allow himself so much time, and may be limited to what he can carry; but a fire can destroy a whole collection. The manual has many parts of use to the general security manager, such as a sample rota, and job description for a security operative, with ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ requirements. includes as a model the British Library Reading Room conditions of use, to safeguard users and materials. To guard against pilfering of often portable books, for instance, “no bag larger than 297mm x 210mm x 100mm may be taken into the Reading Rooms”. Everything is covered from event security, key control, intruder alarms, patrolling and rostering (“people need to be fed and watered if they are to retain their effectiveness so allowance in their duties must be made for meal and comfort breaks”), radio procedures, suspect packages, disaster recovery, VIP visits (“record all contingency plans – for next time”), contracting out security and transfer of undertakings (“The manned security industry does not like TUPE and will often endeavour to ignore it”) and, yes, ‘security of external scaffolding’. That section sets out a specification of the scaffolding, any doors into the hoarding, anti-climb paint, intruder detection and lighting. The manual is cautious on whether to contract out: “… the perceived wisdom was that contract warding was cheaper than providing it in-house, however recent examples have shown that it may well be no less expensive and if the task is complex it could even be more costly than in-house”.

Better to build in

Iain’s advice can run to new builds. As the manual says: “Good design can also reduce the possibility of thieves concealing themselves on premises during open hours, to break out after closing time.” As the manual says, architects “are entitled to an explicit brief on security matters in the early stages. Security advice taken at this stage may avoid the need for additional measures later on that might spoil the building’s appearance …” Adding crime prevention measures to a finished building would be dearer than ‘designing in’ security at the start, Iain says. (Though as the manual says, many premises were not built to house collections.)

About the man

Iain served in the Metropolitan Police for 34 years. As a chief superintendent he was head of security for the Palace of Westminster for four years. Also he was in charge of Holborn police station, which covers the British Museum; and involved in policing Wenbley events, and public order planning for the former stadium. In 1994 he retired. He went to the British Museum for three years, then to the Museum and Galleries Commission, a forerunner of central London-based re:source.

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