ANCIENT artifacts, MODERN technologies
ANCIENT artifacts, MODERN technologies

May 1, 2003 12:00 PM
By Randy Southerland

From serious researchers to wide-eyed school children, a total of 4.5 million visitors make their way through New York City's American Museum of Natural History every year. Throughout its cavernous halls, the crowds can peruse exhibits on the life of Albert Einstein, go nose to nose with a 94-foot-long blue whale model or stare at moon rock on loan from NASA.

This storehouse of history and science was founded in 1869 and is now situated on a 20-acre tract owned by the city of New York. The complex of buildings houses more than 32 million specimens and artifacts, along with two high-tech molecular labs and one of the largest natural history libraries in the world.

Its halls and display cases show an ever-shifting display of the ancient remnants of natural and human existence. In fact, there is seldom more than one percent of the museum's vast collection on display at any one time. In addition, traveling exhibitions from other museums also take their place here, generating renewed interest and often large crowds.
Invisible Security

What most don't see is that these treasures are carefully protected from those who might wish to do more than look and study. Throughout the museum's 20 interconnected buildings, more than 500 cameras provide security officials with views of public and collection storage areas. Thousands of alarm points monitor display cases.

All of these electronic guardians are carefully blended into the design of the museum to ensure that ! while it's there ! it doesn't distract from the purpose of the facility.

"It's not the display of security that people come to see ! it's world-renowned specimens and artifacts," says Andrew Turk, assistant director of security systems and technology for the American Museum. "The security is extensive, but it needs to be aesthetically acceptable as well."

Turk explains that his security department works closely with all segments of the American Museum, including the highly creative members of the Exhibition Department.

"Sometimes (security) devices are painted and mortared and recessed into a wall so that little of the devices are exposed," Turk says. "Cameras and contacts and motion detectors are hidden. The display cases throughout the museum are electronically monitored as well. You don't want the security devices to be as big as the specimen they're protecting."

The cooperative approach is important when it comes to electronic security and access control. Four years ago, management at the American Museum decided to invest in the construction of a security infrastructure that could effectively enhance the work of the physical guard force.

"Securing the museum is very different than securing just a regular office building where you can install special locking hardware and easily separate those who should be there from those who shouldn't," Turk says. "The museum, on the other hand, is for the people, open to the public and made available to everyone. There's no way to screen out people who may be visiting for other than good reasons."

The events of Sept. 11 changed everyone's thinking about the need for protection and how vulnerable any structure ! particularly one in New York City ! could be. Security had to be heightened and technology offered a way to do so without increasing the size of the guard force.

When new shows arrive or a new wing opens such as the recently christened Frederick Phineas & Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space, the crowds can swell to mammoth proportions. In addition, more than 11,000 school buses roll up to the American Museum's doors to deposit thousands of sometimes unruly children.

Even in off hours, researchers and graduate students from universities near and far can be found working in the facility's backroom collections on various academic projects.

"It's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for research and development and academic work," Turk says.
Fiber Backbone

Prox card readers from Irvine, Calif.-based HID Corp. control authorized access to the buildings for more than 5,000 individuals. The backbone of the system is a ProWatch NT from Milwaukee-based Northern Computers Inc. that runs over an extensive fiber-optic network.

Turk acknowledges that the security department was fortunate to find a supplicated, but underused, fiber-optic network linking the entire property together, including two off-site locations in Brooklyn and upper Manhattan.

"One of the things that makes our system a little different than many ! especially in the museum area ! is that ours rides a fiber backbone that exists throughout the museum on a dedicated virtual LAN," he explains. "So we have closets throughout the museum where local devices are run from and from these local closets the backbone of the museum brings back all the information to a central command center."

The fiber network was originally installed for the American Museum's e-mail system. With no other uses, there was considerable bandwidth available for the security network.

"Several hundred card readers control (access to) everything from the elevators in the non-public spaces to the collection storage areas," Turk says. "It is used to separate the public from the private spaces, as well as having readers at entrances where staff can badge in and out."

Each card is programmed for individual access only through those entrances for which the cardholder has clearance. A volunteer, for example, might only be granted access through an outside entrance, while a curator's card might allow entrance through secured areas where artifacts are stored.

The prox cards also carry a mag-stripe that may be used in a number of stand-alone functions. Recently, a barcode was added to the same card that museum officials use to allow staff members to pick up complimentary tickets to special events.

Security staff is able to monitor various museum locations over a CCTV system powered by Lancaster, Pa.-based Bosch Security Systems' Philips LTC 8900 Series Allegiant microprocessor-based video switcher/control system. The system can be programmed to display camera video from any camera manually or through an independent automatic switching sequence.

The cameras scanning the research and development areas are used strictly for safety and security purposes for the employees. On the other hand, cameras located on the exhibit floors are for the protection of artifacts on display.

"The devices are all digital, but the recording is Super High Density analog," says Turk.

Turk and his security department are evaluating available digital systems for future purchase. These devices will get their first tryouts at the 50 cash register locations in gift shops and ticket sale counters throughout the facility.
Central Control

A converted office serves as the point of control for the entire access control and security system. When work first began on creating a central monitoring station, the department soon realized that the area would require extensive renovation work.

The room had just a seven-foot ceiling, so Turk and his crew decided to make use of an adjoining area. Unfortunately, 45-inch-thick concrete walls separated the rooms, necessitating conduits be created between locations. This enabled the back end of the system to dwell in the second room, while leaving the first room free of cabling and other clutter.

Turk believes the American Museum's commitment to technology has allowed his department to build an effective security system ! particularly in an age of heightened amenity over terrorism.

While cameras and readers play a dominant role, they are not called upon to do all the work. Guards inspect cars as they enter parking areas, and vehicles are no longer allowed to come as close to potentially vulnerable areas as they were a few years ago. In fact, bollards have been placed in various locations to prevent a vehicle from being used as a weapon to enter the museum. Just as the interior security devices, the bollards were carefully selected to blend in with the architecture of the building.

Each move to upgrade security has been done with one ultimate goal in mind ! to give security an added tool to do a better job in protecting this venerable repository of the Earth's past.
Randy Southerland is an Atlanta-based writer and regular contributor to Access Control & Security Systems.

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