Skip Navigation
Access Optionsarrow
About us News Action Information Search Help

Help on using this website

Search this website

View printer friendly version of this page

Email this page to a friend or colleague

Policy & Strategy
External Policy Responses
Advice & Guidance
Information Assets
Grants & Awards
Contracts & Tenders

 Section description will appear here

A Guide to Security for Conservators


The MLA Security Adviser gives advice for museums, archives, galleries and historic libraries on the means to protect from theft and fire, especially where it is intended to loan from national collections or under the Government Indemnity Scheme (GIS).

Physical Defences

An intruder detection system will identify an intrusion into a building but it provides no form of resistance to intruders. This can only be done by physical means, which can often defeat the intruder or at least buy time for police to attend in response to the activation of the alarm. For this reason physical defences form the cornerstone of the MLA security policy.

The nature of the collection, its value and its portability will influence the degree of protection required but the shell of the building must in all cases be of substantial construction.

Door Defences

A variety of different degrees of protection can be provided to doors and their openings.

  • An exterior door must at least be constructed of solid hardwood or of solid hardcore construction.
  • Further strength to meet increased risk can be provided by using steel doors of varying thickness or laminated security doors with reinforced plastic or steel sheet inserts.
  • A door-frame must always be capable of carrying its door and be of at least equal strength. Security doors and frames can be provided in their own purpose made sets.
  • Glazed doors to the exterior must always be regarded as weak and supported by a secondary system such as steel roller shutters, expanding steel gates or laminated security doors fitted inside the primary door. These can be cost-effective and aesthetically acceptable.

Window Defences

Windows and rooflights will always be a major problem for museum security. Sometimes even very high windows can be reached from adjacent roofs or ledges.

The defence of windows and rooflights means the use of secondary protective measures such as:

  • Steel roller shutters,
  • Iron or steel bars,
  • Collapsible gates or grilles
  • Secondary glazing using for example glass/polycarbonate/glass lamination.

Intruder Alarms

Experience shows that the value of an intruder alarm is limited if entry to and escape from the museum can be effected before the responding authority arrives on the scene. This is why the need for strong physical security has been emphasised above. An intruder alarm system can then be used very effectively by giving an early signal of an attack as the burglar attempts to defeat the building’s physical defences. In combination these features give the appropriate authorities the best opportunity to respond.

It is important that the signal notifying an attack is safely transmitted over a monitored telephone line (eg BT RedCARE) to an alarm-receiving centre which in turn alerts the police.

Fire Detection

Without early detection whole collections and buildings can be lost. It is therefore essential for museums, archives, libraries and galleries to have an automatic fire detection system that will give an early indication of the presence of fire. Such a system transmits an alarm over a telephone line to the fire brigade, or more often to an alarm company’s receiving centre as well as causing a local alarm to initiate an evacuation of the premises.

Sprinkler Systems

Improvements to the reliability of fire detection systems have made them more acceptable to museum, archive, library

and gallery authorities, especially as the cost of providing night guards has escalated. There is still, however, considerable resistance to the use of automatic suppression systems such as sprinklers. Understandably museum staff fear the destructive consequences of an accidental discharge of water upon the collections in their care.

Display Cases

Display cases are the last line of defence for exhibits in public galleries. Cases are sometimes required to provide an appropriate environment for sensitive exhibits but they may be more necessary for security reasons. While large exhibits such as paintings and statues may be protected by physical or electronic barriers, small, valuable, attractive and fragile objects need to be housed in strong secure display cases. Varying levels of protection can be provided to reduce the risk of accidental or intentional damage and theft but much will depend on the quality and number of security staff available in the area. If a case is robust enough to resist attack this may compensate for limitations in another element of the security provision.

Invigilation and Guarding

Whilst some establishments are able to employ attendants solely in the role of gallery invigilators, many museums authorities use them to cover a full range of security and other duties.

  • Maintaining security has to include knowledge and training in emergency procedures for incidents of theft, damage or fire.
  • A regular inspection routine must be followed to ensure safety of the exhibits, the integrity of the building and to identify fire hazards.
  • In particular, a search of the building at closing time must be undertaken to ensure that nobody has hidden themselves on the premises and that detectors on the alarm system have not been masked by spraying or sticking some form of material over the window.

In the absence of night-guarding, most buildings, if protected in accordance with MLA advice, can be left unattended. Even when a night guard is employed modern practice is to monitor the building electronically and by closed circuit television rather than by regular patrol alone.

Closed Circuit Television (CCTV)

It could now be argued that the point has been reached where museums with high value property that do not have the benefit of cameras could be at increased risk. CCTV can enable invigilators to be more effective, act as a deterrent, make recordings to assist with post-incident investigation, assist with entry control arrangements, provide general information to assist in the management of the premises and where the premises are guarded out of hours to assist with site monitoring.

Key Control

There needs to be a strict policy regarding the issue, possession and storage of keys. All keys other than the external door keys in the possession of nominated keyholders must remain in the building in a secure cabinet or safe and be identified by a coding system.

  • Local police and security/fire alarm company (as appropriate) must always have full and current details of keyholders to the premises.
    Access Control

Advances in technology over recent years have brought about various means of controlling the access of visitors, staff and others to buildings and parts of buildings.


By following the Security Adviser’s advice a minimum level of protection can be achieved with potential to satisfy good or best practice recommendations.

Further advice can be obtained from Iain Slessor, Security Adviser at MLA.

Copies of this fact sheet can be provided in alternative formats. Please contact Viola Lewis, Information Officer at MLA for further information.


Publications | Policy & Strategy | External Policy Responses | Evidence | Research | Legacy | Advice & Guidance | Information Assets | Grants & Awards | Contracts & Tenders
Copyright © MLA 2004. All rights reserved. Legal Notices Design & Technology by ReadingRoom