Oct 04 2019

How Access Control Is Revolutionizing Museum Safety

IoT and other tech advances are making it easier for cultural institutions to protect their assets.

Art and cultural property crime account for billions in losses each year — the threat of theft is serious enough that the FBI established its rapid-deployment Art Crime Team in 2004.

Despite federal funds and forces on the job, however, stealing fine art remains “relatively easy,” according to Insurance Journal. Just 1.5 percent of all thefts end in successful recovery of objects and prosecution of the perpetrators.

In fact, the biggest problem faced by these cultural criminals is selling their ill-gotten gain: Art scholar Noah Charney notes that while “people assume that they’ll find criminal art collectors,” this is fantastically unlikely because “we have very few historical examples — maybe a dozen to 20 who fit the bill.”

The result? Museums lack the advanced access controls capable of limiting larceny and warding off would-be criminals.

What Is the Current Security Landscape for Museums?

According to Security Baron, museum defense relies on redundancy — layering multiple protective processes, each equally able to safeguard artifacts. These often include physical guard patrols and wireless security cameras paired with newer technologies such as vibration sensors and motion detection devices.

The Security Committee of the American Alliance of Museums also recommends securing staff ID cards by leveraging both card scanners and PIN-based card readers to ensure only authorized employees can access storage collection areas.

Why Conventional Museum Security Is Inadequate

The critical failing of current security measures? They’re naturally reactive.

While security guards, burglar alarms and laser systems force thieves to act quickly, these tools rarely prevent crime from occurring. Consider prolific art thief Stéphane Breitwieser, who robbed hundreds of museums to amass his contraband collection. With simple observation of museum security practices, a willing accomplice and slightly-too-large jacket, he was able to successfully steal treasured works across the globe.

Central to this issue is the paradox of experience. If art is too well protected — behind walls and fences in tiny metal rooms — viewer experience suffers. But allowing a broader experience introduces risk and forces museums to become reactive.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: See why cloud security is critical for business growth.

Sculpting Smarter Defense for Museums

New technologies offer a way to improve museum access control and reduce the risk of theft. But these solutions require a deployment approach that combines the static science of current defense with the art of human interaction — the notion that intrinsic behavior and characteristics, rather than overt indications of criminality, are the best indicators of potential pilfering.

Potential defensive controls include:

  • Individual Article Tracking — As noted by the IEEE, advancements in IoT sensor technology are making it possible to create digital identities for physical objects. Museums using technology such as near-field communication and Bluetooth Low Energy beacons can track pieces of art wherever they go and provide critical data on their condition. Tied to larger museum networks, this offers the possibility of real-time status monitoring and change detection to help prevent theft.
  • Improved RFIDRadio-frequency ID solutions offer the potential to deploy small, low-cost tags that make “dumb” objects part of larger smart network. From improved RFID access cards to tag-equipped museum features such as lights, doors and even benches, this kind of blanket RFID approach could hamper criminal efforts to remove art undetected.
  • Gait AnalysisOn the cutting edge of biometric benefits are solutions such as gait analysis. As noted by the American National Standards Institute, the human gait “varies between every single person” and can be described using a mathematical model. Built into museum security systems, gait analysis could be used to identify changes in walking speed and pattern that could indicate visitors may be attempting to leave with more than they entered.

Museums house national treasures and cultural artifacts — but are often at increased risk of theft. New access control and monitoring solutions offer the potential to leverage science in defense of art.


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