Part 1 of 3 in a series of articles, which are excerpts from the keynote address made on May 24, 2023, by Steve Keller at the security conference held at the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati.
In this series, Mr. Keller speaks about three trends in museum security we should be aware of: Ransomware attacks, Dealing with Environmental Protesters, and Artificial Intelligence along with some practical action you can take to protect your museum from these threats. Please note that these remarks were made before the recent publicity regarding artificial intelligence began to break in the news during the week of June 5, 2023.
It’s my pleasure to be here in Cincinnati at the Taft Museum of Art to talk to you about the trends I see developing in museum security. One of the focal points of this conference is the Art Sentry system recently installed here as part of the museum’s major renovation. I am proud to be here as the designer of the security systems installed as part of that project, including the Art Sentry system. While we have designed many Art Sentry systems for museums and are currently working on our largest Art Sentry design for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, this system is the one we are most proud of because it is the first system installed in a house museum where historic fabric issues drove the design and where cameras were flush mounted in the ceilings making them almost invisible. This posed many challenges to us because we had only one chance to get it right due to the nature of the project in a historic building with decorative ceilings. The pandemic compounded the challenges, which kept us from traveling to the site. As a result, we participated in over 65 coordination meetings via Zoom. The contractor did an excellent job, and we could not be happier with this system’s performance and appearance.
So, let’s talk about trends in museum security. There are two that I will blow through quickly so we can get on with the third, which troubles me greatly.
Ransomware Attacks on Museums
I see increasing cyber-attacks on museums resulting in ransomware demands. Ransomware is when the hacker freezes up a museum’s critical computer records, including the museum’s financial records, and demands a ransom in Bitcoin in exchange for the password to unfreeze the accounts. I’m aware that this falls outside the area of responsibility of most museum security managers and is the responsibility of the IT manager. Still, I recommend that you make your museum director aware of the growing threat so they can remain on top of things.
Dealing with Environmental Protesters
The second trend we see is the growing threat of protests from environmental protesters who are gluing their hands to picture frames and smearing paint on picture frames and exhibit cases. While primarily occurring in Europe, the National Gallery in Washington recently experienced such an attack when protesters smeared red paint on an exhibit case.
I spent several hours viewing the various photos and videos of the events in Europe and reading the news and other reports to see if I could develop a profile for the typical incident. If we had a profile of the violators and a common modus operandi, we might be able to be more proactive in how we deal with these events should they expand here in the U.S. I initially thought I had a good profile and patted myself on the back for developing it. I then took a break to read the news on my phone only to see that protesters had hit the National Gallery. The perpetrators could not have been farther from the profile I had developed.
So, what can we do to prepare ourselves for protests should they occur in our museum?
The current response by museums has been primarily reactive. We see the events unfolding quickly, and the guard in the gallery responds as best they can and gets help rolling. The guard deals with the situation by asking visitors to leave and detaining the violator(s), who aren’t trying to flee because they are usually glued to the picture frame. The system is contained until conservators can come and begin the clean-up, and police can deal with the violator.
Should we be more proactive? I say that we should not. Most museums have a no-arrest policy, preferring to let the police make the arrest. Most museums have a policy of not placing their hands on any visitor. I see no reason not to continue that policy as long as the attack on the art is limited to the modus operandi we have seen.
What would a more proactive response by a guard look like? First, to be proactive, you need to profile your museum visitors, and I don’t think this is a very good idea. What could possibly go wrong with allowing relatively untrained security staff to profile visitors? Second, once a potential threat is identified, you need to follow the suspect. Again, what could go wrong? And finally, you need to anticipate their moves. When the potential assailant reaches into their pocket or fanny pack or purse to pull out the super glue, you must intervene immediately. And intervention may require anything from stepping in front of the visitor to laying hands on them. All this must occur in the blink of an eye and with only a split second to think. And since more people reach into their pockets to retrieve a Lifesaver or Chapstick than Superglue, the odds of having assaulted or arrested the suspect unjustly are great.
So, what do I think you should do? Think through what being proactive versus what being reactive looks like. Make a bulleted list of each. After discussing this with your boss, ask for a meeting with the museum director, chief curator, conservator, and other senior staff. At your meeting, explain to the team what each action looks like in real life and stress to them that this action may well be carried out by your very worst performing and least experienced security employee. Explain to them that the chances for a public relations disaster for the museum are high if you ask your guards to intervene and recommend that they help you define exactly what action they expect the guard to take.
It is my understanding, based on the reports I have seen, that no art has been damaged by these protestors, who have taken steps to ensure that they attack only glazed works. So, in doing a cost/risk evaluation, you should conclude that the risk to the museum’s collection and reputation by attempting to intervene is greater than the damage that is likely to occur.
Recommend that you be given resources to train your security staff on being alert for this type of protest. Recommend that if a guard thinks that a visitor may be suspicious that he immediately broadcast on the radio his suspicions and ask that a supervisor or manager respond. Train the supervisor to approach the suspect in a friendly manner and say hello so the visitor knows he has been seen and singled out. Remain nearby, and if the suspect reaches into a bag or pocket, the supervisor should place himself between the suspect and the collection. The emphasis should be on deterring the attack and forcing the protesters to abort their mission. Note that in most of the incidents, at least two protesters attacked the art, and one moved across the gallery, pulled out a camera or phone, and began documenting the event for YouTube.
Once it is obvious that the visitor is posing a serious risk to the collection, i.e., he has pulled out paint or other liquid, you should implement the course of action decided upon by the director and the senior managers of the museum. This decision should not be made by the security director or the officers involved. Make sure that top management understands that if you place your hands on a visitor as a last resort effort to stop an attack, you may be committing an assault or effecting an arrest. Your job is to make them fully aware that once you become proactive, there is a great risk to the museum.
Once senior management has clearly defined what they want you to do, ask that it be clearly defined in writing as guidance for your security staff. If the decision is not to intervene, that too should be clearly stated and included in your training.
Museums should proactively make clear their support for the environmental principles endorsed by the protesters. They should make an effort to remove any conflicts with those principles from the museum’s operation. But they should also make it clear that as guardians of that cultural heritage, museums have to aggressively protect their collections and prosecute violators who risk damage to the collection.
The next (second of three) articles in the series “Now the Scary Part—The Significant Risk That Artificial Intelligence Poses to Museums” can be read here.
Copyright © 2023 by Steve Keller and Associates, Inc.
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