Museum Security: Inexpensive Ways to Protect Your Collection

Elysian Koglmeier | August 27, 2019 (Updated November 22, 2021)

Art theft is a serious business that no one wants to be in.

It has been estimated that more than 50,000 pieces of artwork are stolen each year around the world, and the black market for stolen art is valued at between $6 billion and $8 billion annually. (Stats from U.S. News)

With staggering numbers like that, it’s concerning that small institutions around the world cannot afford high-tech security systems or staff museum guards in every room. 

To help secure your collection, we asked Peggy Schaller, President of Collections Research for Museums, for advice.

What are common mistakes museums make when it comes to security? 

  • Not doing background checks on ALL staff and volunteers.

  • Allowing too many people to have keys to the building and the collections storage areas.

  • Not locking the key box (if there is one) and securing the keys to secured areas of the building.

  • Not keeping a key log, which means that the keys are labeled with exactly what locks they go to by name instead of using numbers which are noted in a key log. If you name the locks rather than number them, you make it easy for a theif to find what they want.

There are inexpensive ways to secure your collection.

It is not as expensive as one might think to secure your collection. Here are some simple and relatively inexpensive things your institution can do to safeguard your valuable works of art.

Establish formal opening and closing procedures. 

Create written checklists and a notebook of photos of exhibit cases. Make sure they are followed each and every time you open and close the museum. Compare the photos to the cases to make sure nothing has changed and the objects are still where they should be and not being harmed by light or other environmental conditions in the museum. Update the photos when exhibits change.

Train staff to be alert.

If you don't have a museum guard, you can still make due with the staff you have. Make irregular walkabouts to engage visitors and survey the museum for irregularities or issues. Make eye contact and greet visitors when they arrive at the museum.

It may seem obvious, but…

Install good locks and enforce key control. Lock the doors and keep the secured collection room(s) secure.

Not everyone needs keys to the museum or unaccompanied access to the collection. Only staff responsible for the collection should have keys to the collections storage and unaccompanied access.

Install fire and smoke detection and suppression.

Theft is not the only issue museums face. Your collection is also susceptible to natural disasters as well. Security should include fire and smoke detection. Learn more about protecting your collection against natural disasters here.

Remember to vet your staff.

The largest percentage of thefts from museums are perpetrated by museum insiders—staff, volunteers or board members with access to the museum or collections after hours.  Many of these are thefts of opportunity. Controlling access and background checks can help reduce this in your museum.

Keep records safe and secure.

Use an online collection management software system to store and access important information and documents related to your collection. If a piece were to be damaged or stolen from your collection, have everything at the ready for your insurance broker and lawyer.

Online collection management software does not have to break the bank. Artwork Archive’s collection management tools start at $6/month for collectors and $24/month for collecting institutions. Pricing can be found here.

And, remember that the security of the museum, collection, staff and visitors is everybody's business. Be aware. If you see something, say something.

Learn more about why collectors and organizations around the world are using Artwork Archive to safeguard their cherished investment.



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