Since the beginning of the COVID-19 health crisis, 95% of the world’s museums have been forced to temporarily close their doors to protect their visitors. Self-isolation measures represent a huge challenge for museum professionals who must continue to ensure the security of their collections.
The reality for each museum is different, and solutions will be specific to each institution in terms of: rotating teams, security services, confinement on site, etc. A joint statement by INTERPOL and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) deplores recent thefts from museums in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, and says that despite confinement measures, it is crucial to continue the improvement and upgrade of museum security.
For decades, ICOM and its International Committee for Museum Security (ICMS) have supported the museum community in securing their collections by offering advice and tools that are simple to implement in relation to security staff, intruder detection systems, CCTV, internal communication and reporting.
INTERPOL, through its Works of Art unit, continues to support the protection of cultural heritage across its 194 member countries. In addition to existing support, ICOM and INTERPOL are now recommending the implementation or reinforcement of the following measures:
- Maintain 24/7 security services (number of trained staff available who can move easily, replacement list);
- All the intruder detection systems, in particular CCTV and alarms, must be fully operational (inside and outside, 24/7) and regularly checked by security staff;
- Set up a procedure to ensure regular contact and a clear chain of information between the security agents and the person(s) in charge of the institution (who to call, in which order, up-to-date contact numbers, etc.) as well as with external service providers (if using outsourced storage).
The majority of museums already have security protection plans. Nevertheless, a recent ICOM survey related to the COVID-19 crisis shows that around 10% of museums consider that additional security measures are insufficient. ICOM strongly recommends ensuring that procedures are adapted to confinement and availability of staff. For instance:
- Museum management and security staff must establish a strict and clear list of staff authorized to access the building;
- Security guards must check the perimeter of the building/site (in particular when there is no CCTV available outside);
- The approach of vehicles in the surrounding area of the building should be prevented or restricted, if possible (with the help of the police);
- All artwork displacement must be avoided;
- The frequency of the security reporting to museum management should be once a week.
Police services are among the frontline professions in this crisis. ICOM and INTERPOL encourage each museum manager to maintain close communication with their contact within their relevant police force and to exchange information regularly with their reference/supervisory ministry, where necessary.
Regular communication and rapid exchange of information between nominated contact persons are the keystones of a system already adopted by ICOM, INTERPOL and their international partners such as the World Customs Organization (WCO), UNESCO and UNIDROIT. It is for this reason that ICOM urges museums that are victims of theft to immediately contact the appropriate police service so that the latter can make contact with their INTERPOL National Central Bureau and INTERPOL’s Works of Art Unit, which is responsible for registering stolen works of art in its international database.
Museums are impacted by this crisis, but so are monuments, sites, libraries and religious buildings. Security issues are currently of great concern to all of these institutions. Museums are vital social platforms within their communities. When a museum is located in a residential area, the residents, themselves confined to their homes, could be made aware of the need to inform the police in the event of suspicious traffic or noise in or around the museum. Ensuring they know who to call and acting quickly in case of suspicious activity are two significant preventive measures.