AUR students learned how to protect themselves and great works of art in a seminar led by Dick Drent, former security director at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and an expert on anti-terrorism and criminal profiling. To practice their skills, students went on a stealth mission at a local museum.

“I guarantee after today, you will never walk into a museum without looking at how easy it was to come in and how to escape,” said Drent, whose company, OmniRisk, advises curators and professionals at museums and heritage sites on how to protect their valuables -- and visitors.

Art and relics are under siege these days – stolen by terrorists to fund their activities or the mafia to use as a commodity or ransom for lower prison sentences. In recent years, visitors at museums and cultural sites have also been killed by suicidal gunmen and hostage takers.  

In this environment, everyone needs to be on guard. 

“The mindset is changing in museum security today,” said Professor Valerie Higgins, director of the master’s program in Sustainable Cultural Heritage at AUR and organizer of the workshop. “It’s moving from after-the-fact, reactive thinking to prevention. Security needs to be an intrinsic part of everybody’s job in the field, not just those in the security department. This is especially true for staff or students who in their daily operations are not usually involved in security decisions.”

Students learning to protect themselves and great works of art

The all-day workshop, titled “Security and Risk Management at Museums and Heritage Sites,” taught students to prepare for the worse – from natural disasters to bomb threats – and how to apply new pro-active measures – such as predictive profiling – to increase security and prevent incidents.

It also gave them practical experience as they went stealth, appearing as ordinary tourists but thinking like criminals, at a Rome museum to conduct a security audit. They then did class presentations on what measures were present, or absent, to protect the art, staff, visitors, and building.

In the business of surveillance, it’s called “red-teaming” where a security force from one museum “attacks” another to find its weaknesses, said Drent. Told to “think with bad intent,” the students looked  at the organization, construction, and electronics (Drent’s OCE matrix) for flaws in integration.

They even checked the thickness of safety glass with their smartphones (a little trick they learned from Drent) and tested how close they could get to the art before being noticed by security.
“It was like looking at the underbelly of a museum,” said one student. “It gave me an odd sensation, but it was very useful.”

The workshop on April 14 was the first in a new series of professional development seminars for AUR graduate students in Sustainable Cultural Heritage, Food Studies, and Peace Studies.  

Making security a personal issue

Drent, who spent 25 years in law enforcement in his native Holland rising from city patrol officer to detective-chief inspector in the Dutch National Police Agency, made the point that security starts with protecting yourself first.
He showed a short YouTube video from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to survive an active shooter in the workplace. Titled “Run, Hide, Fight,” it shows workers doing just that as they hear gunfire and see a man with an assault rifle enter their office.

“I don’t want you to be paranoid,” Drent told students. “But there is more to do than just wait or panic. Live your life. But keep a little part in the back of your head about awareness. Usually, we don't do that because we are relaxed in places like cinemas or museums.”

Museums may be targets for the heritage they protect or because they are close to other landmarks. Or they may have visitors from all over the world, meaning an attack there would get more news attention and hit the international community.
In 2015, terrorists attacked The Bardo National Museum, in the capital of Tunis, Tunisia killing 22 visitors. The museum is a five-minute walk from the Parliament where lawmakers were discussing anti-terrorism legislation that day. Most of the victims were European tourists from cruise ships, making the tourism economy another target.

The museum was also easier to attack that the government building; it had less security and buses could drive up to the entrance.  The tourists were attacked as they got off the busses to go inside.
In 2014, at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, four people were killed by a gunman linked to radical Islam. In 2009, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., an 89-year-old white-supremacist and Holocaust denier shot to death a museum security officer.

"It's about seeing the signs and indicators of what can happen before it happens," said Drent, which is why protection begins outside the museum.

He noted that in Amsterdam they looked at the airspace in the city center and made a no-fly zone over the government and historical buildings which sit in a row, including the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum (with European masterpieces), and Stedelijk (contemporary art & design), to protect them from aerial bombings or plane crashes.

In addition, the Van Gogh Museum only allows its own baby carriages and wheelchairs inside, making security checks faster. And both the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum use Predictive Profiling outside, observing people before they enter, to prevent possible troublemakers from getting in.

Odd man out -- or not?

Drent showed a drawing and asked: “Who is displaying deviant behavior?” It showed icons of a man standing, a woman standing, a man running, and an alien standing.
The alien? Certainly, it’s out of the ordinary, but not doing anything wrong.

“Deviant is not always illegal or criminal,” he noted.  Predictive profiling involves knowing how art thieves work -- their “M.O.” (modus operandi) -- and recognizing it before they strike.

Running is not normal in a museum. That behavior should alert a guard to investigate. “If you are reactive, by definition, you are always too late,” he said.

At the Van Gogh Museum, he co-developed and implemented a method called ORRI (Observation, Recognition of Behavior, Risk Analysis, and Intervention). It trains museum guards to be part vigilant security officer and part hotel concierge.
“It’s using hospitality and client services to get a report on the person,” said Drent. It’s based on the latest techniques in Controlled Cognitive Engagement, a method scientifically tested and proven effective for screening passengers at international airports. Guards ask a series of well-crafted questions and then read the person’s body language for clues of suspicious intent. However, a museum guard needs to do it in a polite way, maintaining the friendly environment.
If they see a visitor acting strangely, they can engage the person in conversation (to find out why), offer them a coffee (to get them away from the art), discreetly alert staff (if at hand) to a problem, and use a security measure to solve the issue such as escorting the person out with a refund of their ticket. “You need to hire people who are creative,” he advised.


Dick Drent and Professor Valerie Higgins

At the Van Gogh Museum – one of the busiest with 7,000 visitors a day – this type of training paid off with better security, and reduced worker absenteeism and costs. At the end of the day, the guards were tired because they were active, both mentally and physically, but they also were more satisfied and motivated, Drent added.

On a mission for art

After serving the Van Gogh Museum from 2005 to 2014, Drent, with his company OmniRisk, became a consultant and an associate director at security firms, SoSecure, and Holland Integrity Group. One of his missions is to get museums to work together to report security threats and build an international database on deviant behavior specifically related to criminal and terrorist acts against cultural heritage. But that’s a tough job. “Often museums don’t like to report incidents, because it’s embarrassing,” he said. It also impacts revenues. If a museum has questionable security, donors and other museums might be reluctant to lend it their works for major exhibits.
However, sharing information, analyzing it, and producing it into a form of intelligence is one of the most important tools to prevent incidents from happening, said Drent.

After spending a day with AUR students, Drent was flying off to Beirut to hold a UNESCO seminar on international illicit art trafficking with representatives from Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. This summer, he will be teaching about art crime and cultural heritage protection at the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) in Amelia, Italy. In 2016, he was a guest speaker on the topic of predictive profiling at the Smithsonian National Conference on Cultural Property Protection in Washington, DC.

One case he is proud to recount is of two van Gogh paintings stolen from the Amsterdam museum in 2002 and recovered in 2016 in Italy, from the Camorra mafia, which is notorious for international cocaine trafficking. It points to the rise of “art-napping” in which criminal organizations steal or buy art to use as investment or collateral for financing. (In 2002, the value of both van Goghs was estimated at $4.5 million.) In some cases, the art is used as payment within the criminal organization. Or, a member who is caught offers to help police find stolen art in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. “What is the risk of something valuable being stolen, damaged or destroyed? What should we do to protect it?” Drent asked the AUR class. “You could put art in a bunker surrounded by cameras and an army of snipers, but we want people to enjoy it -- versus no one being able to see it.”
Finding that balance is a fine art itself. 

By AUR Staff Writer Carla Valentine. Send your feedback about this topic or article to