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Protecting Cultural Heritage Through Risk Management

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Museums and libraries play a vital role in preserving the cultural identity of a region, a nation and even humanity as a whole. Whether private or public, museums and libraries are sources of scientific, cultural, or historic information. They may house artifacts and documents from past generations that provide us with knowledge about where we came from, and help foster a strong sense of community. In the early days, public museums were created to maintain private artwork collections and, in the spirit of enlightenment, to foster education.

The role of the public museum has shifted from one of pure educational purpose to one of helping understand other societies both past and present. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines a museum as a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. Today, museums attract a broad public audience with 50% of Europeans visiting museums at least once a year.

When you think of a museum you probably envisage a major art gallery or large national museum. But the concept is broader than that. According to the ICOM, there are over 15,000 institutions in Europe alone. Most of which are smaller organizations with no or scarce public funding. So, attracting large audiences is a matter of survival.

Museums today need to be dynamic and innovative using rotating exhibitions and organizing special events to bring crowds in. While this is terrific for the public these activities generate numerous risks calling for a proactive risk management policy.

From Hollywood to reality

When thinking about museum security, theft is the first risk coming to mind. There is even a kind of glamorous fame and fascination around art theft, illustrated by movies like The Thomas Crown Affair and Entrapment. But the reality of art crime is different from what Hollywood tells us. Thieves are not always smart playboys driving sports cars in tuxedos to measure or sexy acrobats slipping between curtains of laser beams in dark leotards. Indeed, without detailed global statistics, Interpol assumes that about 60,000 artworks are stolen every year worldwide. Sadly, only about 10% of stolen works ever resurface. Some masterpieces of art will remain bunkered forever constituting a permanent loss of culture.

The downside of cutting-edge security

When it comes to theft modern technology can help. Infrared motion detection is now passive and no longer detectable with make-up powder or by any other means. Microwave detectors create almost impassable barriers. External windows are fitted with breakage sensors not only reacting when pieces of broken glass fall on the ground but also registering any vibration when someone cuts his way through the glazing. Windows and skylights are also protected with magnetic contacts if they can be opened. There are even mat or pressure sensors placed under carpets or directly into the floor that activate an alarm as soon as a thief walks over the surface. Wireless transmitters will carry an alarm from the freestanding showcase displaying antique gold coins or trigger a tremendous acoustic signal as soon as valuable paintings are removed from their hook. Not to mention that any of these actions will be clearly recorded on a digital CCTV system even under low light conditions delivering priceless evidence for identifying and prosecuting the villains. Soon enough museums will also be using RFID (radio frequency identification) and tagging artwork, making it that much more difficult for a successful theft.

These prevention measures have led criminals to move away from traditional nighttime and sophisticated burglary. Instead they often use brutal force or take advantage of the deadly gap when the museum is closed to the public but still not properly secured because the staff are cleaning or preparing for the next exhibition. This new pattern puts not only the artwork but staff and visitors at risk.

The need for holistic risk management

While such cutting-edge security is too expensive for the vast majority of museums they are still exposed to many of the same risks that larger institutions face. After theft, these include fire, vandalism and arson, scratches and breakage due to unsafe handling of artwork, flooding and other natural hazards like humidity and moisture, temperature and UV radiation. Depending upon the theme of a museum or the identity of its operator, terrorism may also become a risk because of the symbolic target the facility represents.

Taking the proper safety and security measures doesn’t have to become a financial killer. With the help of an external security audit, museums and libraries can set up a reasonably comprehensive array of risk management measures designed to help meet the specific requirements of the site. Over time, basic and inexpensive measures can be gradually extended to more complex solutions to approach the ideal security level.

Disaster preparedness

A key component for achieving holistic risk management is having a disaster preparedness plan that clearly delegates responsibilities for the plan’s implementation including evacuation of people and actions to protect the collections. The plan ideally should set predefined rules as to how the evacuation will be announced and where visitors and staff will have to gather. It will also provide technical support to determine which objects from the collections will have to be evacuated as a priority and how they need to be handled. A description of the duties of every member of staff as well as the requirements to establish efficient communication channels to the public and the media will complete these guidelines.

Monitoring access   

Museums and libraries are often located in historic structures and have to balance the need to preserve the building with the actions necessary to protect and preserve the collections housed there. The nature of the building may restrict the use of some security devices. For example, local historical authorities rarely accept reinforcing windows with heavy duty steel bars on the façade of old buildings. So, security will also have to carefully monitor who is coming and going. This includes contractors such as restaurant and catering services, gift shop employees, housekeeping and other providers on-site when organizing a special event.

Borrowing and lending

The mission to share knowledge and the need to remain attractive has led many museums to organize temporary exhibitions. This involves lending out or borrowing artifacts, the perils of which are often underestimated. In this case, a complete risk management plan needs to take into account the possibility of a loss suffered by the lender. Therefore, a contractual agreement is key. The lender is not interested in being compensated financially for any damage sustained by the artifacts, except as a necessary evil. His only wish is to have his loan returned in precisely the same state in which it was handed over. The main issues are linked with the transportation of the objects. While the borrower wants to increase his cash flow by maximizing attendance and reducing costs, the lender is more concerned about the preservation of the objects. Museum lenders may therefore not always speak the same language as the museum borrowers. Depending on the type of artifacts, even the most sophisticated packing and protective measures will not be able to prevent the rate of decay from accelerating. To limit these risks, every museum today expects the full understanding, co-operation and adherence to strict loss prevention measures from the partnering institution which ideally have all been discussed and contractually agreed prior to shipping the collections.

So ultimately, what really matters is conducting an individual threat analysis and having one designated person in charge of and responsible for security. The museum, with the help of an external consultant or their insurance company’s risk engineers, should establish a written security policy with clear procedures. The staff member assigned to security, whether a professional security officer or not, must have the authority to enforce this policy with the backup of the director of the museum and conduct continuous risk analyses and update their plan to reflect any changes.

Taking a holistic risk management approach to museum security will give future generations the opportunity to enjoy and learn about their past, present and maybe their future.

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