A "state-of-the-art" museum security system might be sensitive enough to spot a rodent, but it is useless if museum guards let robbers in the door, security experts said yesterday.
As investigators zero in on human error as a major factor in last weekend's robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a detective who specializes in art and a security consultant said that guards at American museums are generally underpaid, undertrained, and many times are not experienced enough to deal with the responsibilities of the job.
Guards at the Gardner were often part-timers from local art schools, trained for a week by museum officials, and were paid $6.85 per hour, sources close to the museum said.
Museums seeking "state-of-the-art" protection -- as Gardner administrators contend they have -- spend millions of dollars on a combination of infared sensors, ultrasonic sensors, photo-electric beams, weight sensors on carpets, and trip wires on doors, industry specialists said.
But security experts said the money might have been better spent on a professional guard force.
"There has to be an incentive to be a good guard," said Sheila Gillenwater, a private detective based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in recovering stolen art. "There's no incentive for a student who's going to be there for a summer and leave. And $6 per hour isn't any kind of money to speak of. You have to pay more to bring in a higher quality of people.
"It has to be a career. You have to be able to move up the ladder, become a sergeant, become a security director."
Gillenwater added that candidates for guard positions should be subject to extensive security screening, checking their educational, credit, and possibly criminal records.
Two guards were on duty early Sunday morning and let in the thieves, who claimed to be Boston police responding to a call, police said. The thieves then used Mace and handcuffs to subdue the guards.
Gillenwater said the guards failed to observe a basic rule of museum security: Do not let anyone in without fully verifying their legitimacy with a superior.
She added that the museum must share some responsibility for failing to have procedures in place for night visitors.
"A red flag should have gone up when the police showed up and no one called them," she said. "A system of checks and counterchecks should have been in place when anyone -- even the president -- shows up.
"Think of it this way. If at 1 a.m. someone rings your doorbell, are you going to let them in without finding out who they are and why they're there?"
Steve Keller, a national consultant on museum security, agreed with Gillenwater that museums must concentrate on beefing up guard forces to complement high-priced electronic apparatus.
Museums, he said, pay guards about the same salary as fast-food restaurants pay chefs, but the guards are responsible for billions of dollars in art treasures.
"There is not enough pay, not enough training, not enough maturity," he said, adding that Gardner administrators "didn't cut corners on equipment. They didn't buy the cheap brand. The equipment didn't fail. Someone made a human error and let someone in."
William McAuliffe, chief of security for the Museum of Fine Arts, said his night guards are under the strictest directive not to let anyone in. In fact, MFA guards turned away what appeared to be two police officers who approached the museum on Jan. 15, while it was closed for Martin Luther King Day.
"This is the instruction: no one in," McAuliffe said. "That would include Jesus, should he present himself."
But McAuliffe defended the Gardner museum on aspects of its security operation that others questioned: the hiring of art students as part-time guards, the fact that guards were unarmed, and the small number of guards deployed on the night shift.
"I find art students more conscientious about the artwork," McAuliffe said. "You have to do one of two things: hire someone security trained and teach them about the artwork, or hire someone who knows and cares about the art and teach them security. I prefer the latter."
He added that arming guards would necessitate extensive training in weaponry, expose the museum to possible liability, and destroy the peaceful atmosphere of the museum.
At the Museum of Fine Arts, he said, guards are instructed to contact Boston police or Northeastern University police -- who are armed -- at the slightest provocation.
McAuliffe would not comment on whether the MFA's alarms automatically contact police or whether they ring only in the guard station, as was the case at the Gardner Museum.
Michael Snyder, regional manager of ADT, the nation's largest provider of security systems for museums, said yesterday that to turn off the Gardner alarms, the thieves would have needed a key, access to a password, or both, depending on the type of system.
Many security specialists defended Gardner administrators' decision not to have alarms report directly to the police, saying such a system would make it difficult for guards to conduct fire patrols.
But an insurance agent for one of the few firms that insure museums said yesterday that he considered both the Gardner's alarm system and its guard system inadequate.
He said his company would have insured the museum's collection for up to $200 million in theft coverage for $150,000 a year had the security system been better.
But the agent, who asked that his name be withheld, said the company would never have insured a museum without an automatic alarm to authorities and without a better guard force than that of the Gardner.
"In most of our museums, I don't think you could gain access by saying something," he said. "If someone knocked on the door they wouldn't let them in. You don't open the doors."
Andy Dabilis of the Globe staff contributed to this story.
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