Northern States Conservation Center

Providing collection care, preservation and conservation treatment services to collectors and collecting institutions.

Collections Caretaker

Vol.1 No.2 Fall 1997 Vacuum Cleaners
Electronic Security Systems at a Small Museum: The Adams Memorial Museum Case Study

by Mary Kopco

The Adams Memorial Museum in Deadwood, South Dakota opened its doors to the public in 1930. Like many small, private, non-profit history museums with limited budgets, the Adams Museum has experienced a number of thefts during its 66-year history. These thefts resulted in the tremendous loss of not only important artifacts but also community confidence.

When the last major theft occurred during the early 1970s, the Museum's board of trustees installed iron bars on the basement and first floor windows. Although this helped to keep out after-hours thieves, it did little to prevent theft during the hours of operation.

In 1990, the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission, funded through gaming proceeds, offered funding to restore the museum with the proviso that a security system be installed. To fulfill that requirement, the Adams Museum had door sensors, a heat-sensitive fire alarm system, and four motion detectors installed. That system was a Pro-Link SPI-648 Security System, manufactured by Capricorn Electronics. The cost to install the hardware was $1,625. In addition, a security company was hired to monitor the alarms 24-hours a day.

Be forewarned that not all security companies are reputable. It is important to request and check out references. Lionheart Security Inc., a national company with an office in Rapid City, S.D., is the security company the Adams Museum hired. The monthly monitoring fee is $19. Again, the system added after hour protection, but did little to deter theft or to protect staff during business hours.

Another important security measure was the addition of panic pendants at a cost of $60 each. The pendants are worn around an employee's neck, hidden inside his/her clothing. If a problem occurs, the employee pushes the button. A sensor sets off an alarm at the security company's monitoring station, which in turn notifies the police. Not only does this security device protect the collections, it also protects the Museum's most valuable asset - its staff.

A year ago, the Adams Museum received additional funding from the Historic Preservation Commission for a security camera system. The system was amazingly affordable. The total cost, including installation (through marble, plaster, and concrete) by a professional security company was just under $5,300.

Because the Adams Museum has a small staff, the museum needed a system that would essentially watch itself and would allow staff to see all areas of the museum at the same time. Also required was a visible system to deter petty thieves and vandals.

The system -- a quad (four) monitor system -- includes four cameras that shoot images onto a black and white screen. All four areas are visible at once on the screen. If needed, staff can focus on one area by pushing a button. The MiniQuad Multiplexer (Model 1472MIN) is manufactured by American Dynamics, and Altronix ALTV248 Camera Supply is made by the Altronix Corporation. The monitor is a Toshiba Video Monitor, TVM-1202. The video cassette recorder is a TC3810 Series manufactured by Burle.

The monitor is connected to a 24-hour, time-lapse VCR. The museum has seven videotapes, representing each day of the week, to record 24 hours of activity. By having seven tapes, the tapes can be archived or taped over. If a breach in security is detected, the tape can be set aside until the problem is resolved. Note, it is important to purchase new tapes every six months so that the tapes remain in excellent condition.

A time and date stamp is an important feature. It establishes that the person accused of a theft was in the museum at the time and date shown on the video. Another precaution is to periodically write down the time on the museum's guest register, which every visitor must sign.

To capitalize on the deterrent factor, the system was placed near the front desk. The museum's receptionist is better able to watch the monitor when he/she is not greeting visitors or handling gift shop sales. The high visibility of the camera tells "would-be" thieves they are being watched. The camera system also has such practical applications as helping visitors find "lost" friends or family members in the museum. Also, adolescent pranks no longer occur in the basement exhibits.

The museum's board of trustees questioned the value of adding dummy cameras. However, the dummies are almost as expensive as the real camera (roughly $330 per camera). A less costly alternative is to post signs that state "security cameras are in use."

There are disadvantages to the security system chosen by the Adams Museum. First, the cameras have to be manually focused and directed. Sweep cameras, which are more expensive, also break down more frequently because of moving parts. Secondly, the system does not allow the addition of cameras. There are two other areas that need coverage in the Adams Museum, so an additional, smaller system is being considered for purchase. The additional camera system includes one camera, a monitor and a two-way audio system for $600. The cost of adding a VCR with the 24-hour, time lapse, date and time stamp system will be an additional $1,152.

Although electronic security systems are more than worth their initial expense because of their theft deterrence, it is also important to develop a security plan that includes careful hiring practices, the control of keys, exhibiting smaller artifacts in locked cases, inventory control, training staff and volunteers in handling theft and fire, and prohibiting visitors from carrying coats, packages, backpacks and other articles into exhibit areas. Remember that a museum cannot rely solely on an electronic security system.

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© 2002 Northern States Conservation Center

Updated 11 May 2002