The Secret History of Art was recently asked to answer some questions about the role of technology in the protection of cultural heritage. Here is a reproduction of the interview.
1) Today, where are problems in the protection of cultural goods and which technologies do you think will be useful in the future (what is the future of security for cultural goods)?
The main problem with current technologies is that they are alarm based, and yet human security guards are not properly trained to respond should the alarms go off. There is an over-reliance on technological security, which while important tends to make human security guards overly passive, assuming that the technology will do the work for them. In cases of the latest trend in “blitz” thefts (armed, masked thieves bursting into museums during open hours, threatening with guns, and ripping works off the wall quickly), alarms do tend to function, but since average police response time in a city is 3-5 minutes, if the thieves are out in under 3 minutes, then the alarm has failed to provoke a timely response.
2) How important do you think are international standards for describing art (ex. ObjectID)? How widespread are they?
Extremely important. There are countless cases I’ve heard of in which owners of stolen art have been unable to provide almost any useful information about what is missing from their collection, from private owners to museums. If you report to the police that a “Chinese vase” was stolen, and that it was “blue and white,” and that is all you can provide, it will be impossible to recover. Or, in the case of the Ptolemaic maps stolen from the National Library of Madrid by Cesar Gomez Rivero, the library had trouble proving that these non-unique but rare maps, once recovered, were the same ones stolen from their shelves. It is absolutely critical to keep good written and photographic records of your objects (a lesson important for museums as well as individuals), and using something universal, like ObjectID, is a good way forward.
3) Can RFID tags be used in in protecting art?
This is a good idea, but it has to be inserted into an artwork in a way that a) it cannot be easily or quickly removed by criminals (preferably not even easily located on or within the artwork, and b) it cannot be easily scrambled (RFID and GPS can be defeated by being placed in a lead container, for instance). It also needs to be cost-effective. So cost, size, and complexity of defeating the mechanism are all keys–if those can be sorted then this is a very good method.
4) What do you think about abnormal behavior detection through video analysis (against grave robbers)?
There are two chapters of my edited book, “Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World” (Praeger 2009) that discuss this, written by renowned security directors. Behavior analysis is a powerful tool that also helps to make the generally boring job of security guard more interesting. Guards should play a proactive role in analyzing museum-goers, looking for abnormal behavior that suggests that the individual may be “up to no good.” This analysis should take place in the museum or gallery, not only via video, so that a situation can be defused. Nothing is more disconcerting for a criminal conducting hostile surveillance than being noticed acting funny and being approached by a friendly security guard.
Note: This interview was done by Joël Stillhart.