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Cultural conference

The cultural community has suffered in the covid pandemic – and the threats to cultural property from organised crime groups remain, the IAASF conference heard in Darlington last week.

In the welcome to the day and a half event by Andy Davis of the consultancy Trident Manor, he said that there were still some restrictions for the museums and heritage sector, even after the re-opening of the UK in the summer; which made life difficult for all those involved in the display of art and artefacts. As in other sectors, heritage has seen a loss or fade of skills, as staff have been on furlough, or have had to apply for other jobs since the first lockdown of spring 2020. Those skills in the operation and management of cultural venues need to be replaced, Andy said.

“Unfortunately, one thing that hasn’t gone away and remained, are the adversarial threats to cultural venues, galleries and stately homes, the venues that are exhibiting art and heritage and our nation’s culture. Those threats haven’t gone away – in some cases the threats have actually increased and manifested themselves in other forms,” he added.

Hence the conference – twice postponed, due to covid. One striking feature of the event was how much heritage and art there is – millions of objects; Durham Cathedral alone has 140,000 items in its collections, including such priceless and irreplaceable pieces as the coffin of Saint Cuthbert, and the Lindisfarne Gospels. The opening speaker after Andy, the Conservative MP for Darlington, Peter Gibson, made a point of mentioning the railway bridge over the River Skerne in the town, the oldest surviving rail bridge (200 years old in 2025) still in its original use.

As that showed, heritage is not only works of art such as paintings and sculpture, but buildings and even pieces of national infrastructure, that have cultural and even sentimental value; that people invest pride in. Culture also has an economic value; Darlington has a railway museum to mark its historic place in the start of the railways, and plans to mark the bicentenary in 2025. And culture has always been a political battleground; consider the Black Lives Matter pulling down of the slaver Colston’s statue in Bristol last year. After day one of the conference, delegates gathered in an upstairs room at the Mercure Hotel venue for drinks, and could see in the market square below a statue of Joseph Pease (picture by Mark Rowe) – not likely to be a target for BLM, as he was a Victorian Quaker MP and an anti-slavery campaigner (as a part of the statue commemorates). That, too, showed how culture – in need of protection – is all around.

Yet some cultural artworks are easily stolen – small and portable; such as rhino horn, and jade and pottery – that has an international demand; hence the attraction to organised crime that might hire criminals to carry out thefts from museums and galleries – crude raids, that lead to losses besides the stolen items, from closures of sites for repair.

Heritage protection is not only about vandalism and theft – although that was well aired at the event. Other speakers pointed out the more general safeguarding – protection from ultra-violet light in the sun (perhaps requiring specialist glazing, that could also be specified to protect from bomb blast); water damage (requiring protection from leaks – whether caused by theft of lead from roofs, or old buildings in need of repair); careless handling; fire (the veteran consultant and authority on security and fire safety, Stewart Kidd, was a day one speaker) even fungal infections and insects.

Speakers also brought out the sheer variety of threats to cultural property – not only when they are on show, but when in store (as most of those millions of objects are) from the insider threat – hence the need for inventory control – and when transported, as when loaned internationally, when they are protected by a UK Government-backed indemnity scheme. The event also heard about insurance from another veteran and authority in the field, David Scully of Art Mediation – because if a rare work of art could be sold at auction for a nine-figure sum, how do you agree a value on such a work, and if it were stolen, what would you spend the money on?!

The IAASF (International Arts & Antiquities Security Forum) is planning to hold its 2022 conference in Amsterdam. Visit

More in the October print edition of Professional Security magazine.


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