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UK museums on heightened alert against attacks

Arts Council England and the Scottish Council on Archives warn of increased theft danger

A warning of a “severe and imminent” threat of attack on UK museums has been issued by Arts Council England. William Brown, the council’s national security adviser, says that museums should ensure that their collections are held in facilities with “the best available defence against any attack”. He warns that staff should now be “extra vigilant to visitors paying undue attention to collections”. Although “attack” might suggest a terrorist threat, a council spokeswoman says that the concern is over “theft of objects”. This is the first time a warning of this severity has been issued by the Arts Council.

The Scottish Council on Archives, a government-funded body, has elaborated on the danger. It advises: “The National Crime Agency are aware of an imminent threat of theft of collections across the UK. They are aware of a group who has made reconnaissance visits to a number of museums and other venues across the UK. It is thought that smaller, more portable items will be targeted rather than items such as large paintings”. The National Crime Agency, a UK government body, has previously warned that organised criminals are targeting museums and galleries.

There was a wave of thefts of small but valuable items from the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum in 2004-05. This problem was addressed and, since then, thefts from national museums have fallen. However, over the past decade there has been a disturbing number of burglaries at country houses.

Brown is giving UK museums specific advice. Intruder and case alarms should be “used correctly” and CCTV systems ought to be “purged to ensure they are at their optimum performance”. All glass cases should be cleaned frequently “to ensure forensic evidence is possible”. With dark evenings approaching, “it is a good time to ensure outside lighting is operating and external aspects of museum buildings [are] checked regularly”. Checks on the displays of “all collections at opening, lunch and closing should be carried out for the foreseeable future”.

The Arts Council spokeswoman was unwilling to elaborate but the threat is presumably based on intelligence information, possibly from an underworld source. Extra security will only add to the financial costs of running museums at a time of cutbacks in government funding.