Security Options for Exhibit

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Which security options are built into an exhibit depends on the risk of theft, vandalism, and incidental touching.

How do I determine the security risks for objects on display?

Museum exhibitions require different levels of physical security according to the nature of the collections, the circumstances of the exhibit space, and the staffing resources. Trained security staff, as well as mechanical and electronic security devices are usually required for exhibits containing objects of high monetary or cultural value, which are potential targets of theft or vandalism. The category includes particularly significant objects, documents and works of art; rare or highly valued jewelry, precious metals, archaeological treasures, guns, coins and other materials readily traded and sold on the market.
Perform a security risk assessment early in the development of any exhibit. This assessment helps to establish the specific level of security required for:

  • the overall exhibit space;
  • the individual exhibit enclosures;
  • the individual object mounts.


Protection can be provided at all three levels only when the security needs are identified early in the exhibit planning process. Additional security requirements are often set by lending institutions, and these specification must be accommodated. Failure to provide appropriate security may have the most serious of consequences resulting in loss or damage to the collections and possible legal ramifications for the institution.

What are the major exhibit case security options to protect high risk collections?

Although controlled access to an exhibit space and security staffing are the primary strategies, a tremendous array of technology can be used for additional security. Unobtrusive protection can be provided by alarm and sensor units thoughtfully incorporated into the exhibit case design. The following list is intended as an overview of the available security devices. Options to choose from include mechanical devices that make theft more difficult, and sensors that alert staff or police to a threat. (Disaster preparedness and fire protection are separate issues and are not included here.)

Mechanical deterrents include:

  • Exhibit Case Glazing: High risk objects should be displayed in sturdy, sealed display cases that are securely bolted to the floor or wall. Use glazed panels or lids of either glass, or clear acrylic or polycarbonate of an appropriate thickness. Security glazing provides an additional level of protection. Forced entry resistance of the glazing should be matched to the case’s structural and wall resistance.
  • Tamper Resistant Fasteners: Exhibit case lids and removable panels should be fastened using tamper resistant fasteners. These fasteners are screws with unique heads requiring non-standard screwdrivers, wrenches, sockets or spanner head drivers not normally marketed in hardware supply stores.
  • Locks: Exhibit case entry doors, light chamber entries and climate control access panels should be secured with locking devices. Different lock types and levels of technology are available. Appropriate lock selection and a proper key distribution system are of utmost importance.


Electronic monitoring devices include:

  • Magnetic Contact Sensors or Micro-switches: Electrical circuits installed underneath an object signal remotely or locally when the object is moved
  • Motion Detectors: Any intrusion changes the resonant frequency of a reference electrical field, producing a signal.
  • Magnetic Reed Switch: Consists of contacts, impervious to external influence, located in glass or plastic which are controlled by a prescribed external, magnetic field.
  • Vibration Switches: A sound is produced when the object undergoes mechanical vibration. If the object is merely set off balance the sound will cease, but if removed the sound will continue.
  • Weight Sensors: These sensors are set underneath a shelf and are controlled by the combined weight of the object or objects on the shelf and respond to any reduction in that weight.
  • Pressure Sensors: A semi-conductor that stabilizes at a specific pressure is implanted into a wall; the sensor is activated by any increase or decrease in the pressure of 5 grams or more. Weight sensors are useful for objects outside of a case like a painting.
  • Audio Sensors: These systems use microphones that work on the principle of changes in charge that take place when the distance between two capacitor plates changes due to mechanical vibration or changes in air pressure.
  • Devices: The presence of magnetic or microwave fields which show a frequency shift if an object is moved. They can be unobtrusively positioned within a display case to fill the entire volume of the case.
  • Photoelectric Eyes: These form a protective screen around displayed objects consisting of laser beams passing between transmitters and receivers. An alarm signal is generated when the beam is interrupted.
  • Built-in Wires: Wire circuits which trigger an alarm when broken are useful for objects located outside of a case like paintings and oversized objects.