Thieves, Vandals, Displacers

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This is part of a Preventive Care series about the Ten Agents of Deterioration.

Definition[edit | edit source]

Examples of criminal risk as one of the Ten Agents of Deterioration are:

  • Planned theft by someone intent on violating the collection
  • Opportunistic theft by visitors
  • Embezzlement by staff
  • Vandalism
  • Illegal excavation

Security[edit | edit source]

Two of the biggest threats to the security of cultural heritage institutions are thieves and vandals, who are considered among the Ten Agents of Deterioration.

Art heists, such as the well-known robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, can make for sensational news stories, but art theft is not always sophisticated or premeditated. In fact, museum thefts are sometimes opportunistic rather than pre-planned, and internal theft, which is theft by someone within an organization, is actually more common than theft by external parties. As such, institutions should have strong internal screening procedures and documentation practices, such as periodic collections audits, to discourage internal theft.

Vandalism is usually an opportunistic act that is committed randomly and without foresight or clear rationale. Sometimes, however, vandals target certain artworks as an act of protest or due to a particular prejudice (such as racism, anti-semitism, etc.) or ideology. Creating a mandatory bag check and/or bag inspection for the visiting public can help prevent vandalism.

Cultural heritage institutions can prepare themselves in a number of ways to secure their collections.

Firstly, they can prioritize security in their selection of the location and design of their institution. Isolated locations are more at risk, as are locations with obstructed lines of sight. Ideally, a property should have well-lit parking lots and trees and hedges that are trimmed low and kept at least 6 meters away from the building. The building itself should be constructed out of brick or cement in lieu of wood, and should employ protection measures such as alarmed points of entry, security screens on HVAC ducts and vents, and CCTV.

Another important mitigation tactic is known as the zoning approach, in which an institution is subdivided into a series of compartments in which protections increase as you move through each zone. For example, there could be:

  1. A public zone (such as parking, shops, etc. that are monitored by CCTV);
  2. A reception zone (at the entrance to the museum, where there is an initial visible deterrent, such as a receptionist and/or other security personnel);
  3. An operations zone (such as exhibit areas, with stationed guards or volunteers; psychological barriers to the art such as cords, signs or raised platforms; locked and shatterproof display cases; and detection systems such as infrared motion detectors, proximity alarms, glass-break sensors, etc.); and
  4. A security zone (such as conservation labs and collections storage areas, with restricted and key-carded entry, separately keyed locks, lockable doors using security lock hardware, metal doors with non-removable hinge pins, etc.).

It is important to provide extra attention to well-known and/or highly valuable items because they are most at risk for a premeditated attack, portable items because they are most at risk for an opportunistic attack, and controversial items because they are most at risk for an ideological attack.

In the case that preventative measures fail to halt an act of theft or vandalism, it is critical to respond promptly, report the stolen or vandalized objects to the proper authorities, and create thorough and accurate documentation via photographs and condition reports.

You can find more information about security at Connecting to Collections’ archived webinar and on the Canadian Government’s page on the Agents of Deterioration.


Resources and Further Reading[edit | edit source]