Protecting Historic Sites


One of the most difficult museums to secure is the house museum or small historic site. House museums cannot usually be secured using what we call the traditional protection model where guards stand in each “gallery” or group of galleries and oversee visitor activity. This can happen but it is often more costly than the museum can afford and there are other problems and issues with doing this in smaller facilities. Large house museums like some of the mansions around the country could do this if the period rooms are roped off or otherwise closed but even in these larger facilities having guards in the rooms is impractical.

What often happens is that these museums conduct tours using a guide, docent or interpreter. This guide leads the visitors through the house and lectures as she goes. As every house museum director knows so well, the guide can be easily distracted. A visitor can demand to leave the tour, pretending to be sick, and either has to be escorted out or leaves alone, able to do mischief along the way. With only one guide to a tour, if the guide leaves to escort the sick visitor out, her accomplice is left unattended.

Another problem house museum face is the fact that a dishonest visitor can easily steal a small valuable item by making one bold reach across the barrier or into the period room when the attendant is not looking.  How can this happen? Every guide will tell you that every tour, it seems, has at least one straggler who takes his time and lingers in a room as the guide tries to direct the group to the next stop. Once left alone, the visitor can reach into an unalarmed room.

Another problem with historic house museums is that very often it is a matter of public safety that the exterior doors to the building be left unlocked when tours are present. This means anyone from a dishonest employee or contractor to a museum visitor can slip in or out when the tour is in another part of the building. The issue of historic fabric makes it impossible in most instances to install modern locks that might prevent this so we live with this type of vulnerability.

These are just a few of the many differences we see when working in historic house museums. The list goes on.  And the solutions are difficult because I know of few house museums that have enough funding to address the issue properly.

There are a few things that you can do.  The first is to use well trained guides who know exactly how to deal with the straggler or the visitor who creates a situation that might lead to a theft. Guides must be assertive and maintain control of the situation at all times.  They must be aware of the security problems and how dishonest visitors might act.

To secure a building with tours from a theft during tour hours, there is nothing like having a second person on the tour who assists the guide. This person remains at the end of the tour and ushers stragglers along. He also can escort someone out who insists upon leaving and is a second pair of eyes in protecting the collection. A second guide is the best defense against the straggler.

For many years the use of CCTV in historic house environments was out of the question. Coaxial cable used to transmit the images to the monitor was thick and difficult to conceal. Wires are often difficult to run in a house museum due to historic fabric issues. But today, cameras are tiny, some as small as a quarter dollar.  While these are not ideal and may not always give a good image, they can be used almost anywhere. As conditions such as lighting in period rooms gets worse, the camera has to get larger to compensate. At worst, however, there are, today, very small cameras using much easier to run cabling that can be used. And while wireless cameras are far from being an acceptable solution, if you have one or two completely impossible locations to protect, a wireless camera just might work.

Some CCTV systems use motion detection and others use even more effective video analytics. If you can get a camera cable to your period rooms, having this motion detecting capability is just what you need. With systems like these you can mount a camera high on the wall and using a draw tool in the software, draw the area on the screen that you want to be alarmed.  When someone walks or reaches into this protected area, the camera will alarm and alert you. While some systems are DVR based, server based systems are best and those with video analytics should be your goal.

Think of the possibilities. If you can mount a camera in the right location, aim it at the small items most likely to be stolen on the mantle, on the desk or table, etc. Or, if you are required to keep that door unlocked downstairs, aim a camera at it and the CCTV system will alert you when someone opens the door. If it is the next tour, ignore it. If not, respond. With these systems you can usually view the camera images on an iPhone or iPad. Stream them from the server to the iPad wirelessly. A guide can actually view every period room simultaneously from a PC or iPad.

The advantage of technology like these CCTV systems is that they never sleep and they make a record of what they see.  One well placed camera can make the non-public side of the velvet rope electronically off limits.  This can be a significant deterrent to internal theft because employees and contractors will know that they can’t just slip in and out with a stolen object. Visitors who are looking for security devices can see the cameras in the period room and know it is under surveillance. Other honest visitors will rarely notice the camera discreetly in a corner of the room at the ceiling.  One camera can cover large areas of a room.  CCTV systems work all the time--at least all the time that there is sufficient light for them to see activity--and provide protection during those hours museums call “gray hours” that occur after the alarms are turned off but the guides have not arrived but there is some activity in the building. Low light level or no light level cameras work in near total or total darkness but are slightly larger.

Wiring a period room is not really that difficult if it is possible to run wires from floor to floor. Many sites penetrate the floor with a cable then run the cable down the surface of the wall hidden behind a drapery. Minimal damage is done to the building fabric.

Before there was CCTV there was infrared motion detection. If you can get power to a location in a period room you can have your alarm company or a local volunteer with minimal electronic experience build an inexpensive standalone alarm device that projects an infrared beam across the room, alarming when the beam is broken. (OK, I can hear the old pros moaning now. Infrared detectors don’t actually “project” anything. They are passive. But they see infrared heat of the hand reaching into their field of view. But the “project a beam” story is much easier for a non-security person to conceptualize and understand).  By connecting these motion detectors to a local audible alarm available from Radio Shack, you can know if someone crosses the beam. Crossing the beam or entering the detector’s field of view causes the alarm to sound right there in the room.  The problem with these is that they need to be placed where they need to be placed if they are to work. But if that place makes them visible, it is not always possible to use them there if the device is unsightly. Some house museums that use these devices have built them into waste baskets and other furniture but you can generally hide them simply by moving items in the room to a position that conceals the detector.

Keep in mind that a visible security device can be a good deterrent and most people are so conditioned to seeing modern devices in a room, they really never notice them. But the bad guy will.

There are two types of crimes in a house museum:  the planned crime and the crime of opportunity.  We can prevent the crime of opportunity by being alert and attentive and having enough people on hand to handle the crowd. We can limit the size of tours and place items out of reach. But the planned crime can be hard to prevent. I can think of many ways to get in and out of a house museum before you can respond to catch me in the middle of the night. In a smash and grab the thief can be in and out in no time. It is often difficult to saturate a house museum with motion detection because of the need to conceal the detector but it is important that all windows and doors be covered with detection.

I think I can say with some degree of certainty that in most planned thefts, the criminal will “case the joint” and in most he will visit the museum as a visitor on the day of the planned heist to make sure things are as they should be for him to be successful when he breaks in that night. Getting a high resolution video recording of every visitor who comes into the building on a tour yields an excellent collection of photos of suspects. Getting a video of every license plate and car that uses the parking lot also gives valuable evidence to aid in arrest and recovery.

We could write a book on security for house museums--and we probably will someday and make it available on this site. For now, if you are responsible for security in a house museum and want to know the latest on security technology, alarm system requirements, or procedures, please call the committee chair who will refer you to one of our members who likely spent a career working in house museums and historic sites providing security. See also “Tips, Tricks and Technology” a page devoted to protecting a cultural property on a shoestring.

Securing the House Museum

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Want More? Click here for an article “Protecting Historic Buildings” originally published in Security Management.