The theft of a Van Gogh painting from the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands last week has brought into focus the challenges museums face in protecting their collections during the Covid-19 lockdown.
According to press reports, thieves smashed through a glass front door of the museum in the early hours of the morning, setting off a burglar alarm. They stole one artwork, Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, and escaped before the police arrived. The painting had been on loan from another Dutch institution, the Groningen Museum, and is valued at up to £5m.
With minimal numbers of staff on site, emergency services preoccupied and few passers-by on the streets, there is widespread concern that the lockdown will be exploited by opportunistic criminals.
Although the Singer Laren museum says it followed all security protocol, an Interpol spokesperson told the Art Newspaper that the theft is “more proof that criminals don’t take breaks and will use any situation to their advantage”. Smaller institutions with high value collections are thought to be particularly vulnerable.
In addition to the burglary in the Netherlands, there have also been a number of cases of vandalism and petty crime reported at culture and heritage institutions in the UK since the coronavirus emergency began, including a break-in Blaise Castle House Museum, part of Bristol Museums, which had its ground floor windows smashed just as the UK shutdown was getting underway in March.
Many institutions are currently reviewing their insurance policies, with some said to be considering moving high-value items to more secure facilities for the duration of the lockdown.
It's not just security that is a concern for collections. With limited access to sites, there are also fears that objects could be damaged by climate fluctuations, pest infestations and other environmental factors.
Arts Council England has published new guidance on security and conservation for closed venues and sites. The advice is intended for organisations with loans under the Government Indemnity Scheme, but the arts council says it may also be of more general help to other organisations.
The guidance confirms that security and conservation staff are permitted to travel for essential work under Home Office advice, although they should always observe the two-metre distancing guidelines while travelling to or at work.
According to the guidance, institutions should ensure alarms, CCTV cameras and other security and environmental monitoring systems are regularly checked and maintained – at least once every seven days where possible. Random checks should also be conducted on the exterior of buildings and open sites, says the guidance.
Museums should also keep detailed records of their security procedures during this period, the arts council advises. The guidance states: “It is important that records of checks and visits by who, when and where are made and any action required/ taken to ensure the wellbeing and security of objects. Where it has not been possible to visit a site due to current restrictions, this should also be recorded. These may be required in the event of any later claim.”
The UK Heads of Conservation Group has also produced guidance on protecting and conserving collections during the lockdown. The group advises museums to take steps to reduce known environmental risks, schedule regular collections care checks and update their emergency response plans.