Amid mounting concern over safety in public spaces, museums face a complicated set of tasks: the need to be inviting and open while also securing their collections and ensuring visitor safety.
That's the backdrop for a conflict that recently spilled into the streets in Boston: During labor negotiations, Museum of Fine Arts guards have taken to picketing to protest changes that would redefine their jobs and could, they say, force some to stop working at the museum.
A union that represents roughly 95 of the museum's guards says MFA leadership wants to usher in a new, more aggressive training model for guards, along with a less-flexible work schedule and reduced raises.
"They want us to be more like unlicensed cops, in which we'll be more militarized," said Evan Henderson, president of the Museum Independent Security Union. "We'll be doing, like, drills in the morning. They want us to not focus on the artwork and be able to fight things like active shooters."
In an e-mail interview, MFA public relations director Karen Frascona confirmed that the museum is seeking to enhance its guard training and security operations.
"In today's environment, it is critical that our security workforce is prepared to protect our staff, students, volunteers, visitors, and the collection in a variety of situations," Frascona said. "Industry-standard training in areas such as emergency preparedness, conflict resolution, and security operations is included in the MFA's current plan."
Museum security experts said balancing competing priorities is a complex proposition with no single template. "Industry standards are difficult," said R. Michael Kirchner, chairman of the security committee for the American Alliance of Museums. "It varies worldwide because of the different size of facilities and resources."
Kirchner, who formerly served as director of security at the Harvard Art Museums, said museum security is further complicated by the somewhat circumscribed role of security guards. "You have many museums that don't even want to call them guards because they want to soften the environment," he said.
He added that unlike police officers, who can apprehend suspects and enforce laws, museum security must focus instead on customer service and conflict resolution.
"They have to know their limitations, and that's where training comes in," he said. "It's not going to do any good to train them in the martial arts, because they're not authorized to use force. . . . You're really counting on strong customer service and personal relations skills to obtain compliance."
Henderson, the union president, maintained that under the MFA's proposed plan, the museum would reduce the number of gallery guards and depend more on security technologies.
"They're going to be relying heavily on camera surveillance, taking the guard responsibilities away from protecting the art, and taking away visitor interactions from the guards, which is basically the reason why we all got this job," said Henderson, contending that this would diminish the visitor experience.
"Customer service was a huge aspect of the job," he said. "We all take great appreciation in the artwork that we're around. We're very knowledgeable."
Frascona rejected the notion that the museum planned to reduce the number of gallery guards. "At this time, we are not contemplating a reduction in the number of guards, including in the galleries," said Frascona.
Frascona declined to describe details of the MFA's security system, citing its sensitive nature.
But according to Steve Keller, a museum security consultant with Architect's Security Group in Florida, the MFA is in the forefront of a broader trend among museums to adopt technologically advanced security systems. Keller, who said he was briefed on the MFA's security system at a conference this year at the Smithsonian, said the museum uses a predictive video monitoring system that incorporates ceiling-mounted cameras and video analytics to sound an alarm before a person actually touches an artwork.
"The MFA has one of the largest of these systems," he said. "They're doing an amazing job."
Keller added that the MFA's system "goes beyond what most museums do," enabling the museum to conduct statistical analyses of audience movement patterns to determine which artworks (and even which areas of an artwork) are vulnerable to damage, and how they might better be displayed.
"I can see why the security guards would be concerned, but in fact the system is very effective," he said. "It doesn't necessarily eliminate security guards; it allows you to redeploy the guards in a much more effective manner."
Among the guards' other grievances are scheduling concerns. Currently, guards can work shifts of varying lengths. Frascona said the museum was working to standardize the guards' schedules, creating regular day, evening, and overnight shifts, starting Jan. 3. Under the guards' contract, the museum retains the right to alter the guards' schedules independent of negotiations.
Michael Raysson, a retired guard who founded the union and remains active in the protest, said the proposed scheduling changes would make work at the museum impossible for many long-time guards.
"You have guards that have been here for 20 or 30 years that have made their lives according to the job," said Raysson. "Many of them, even to get by, have to do overtime, or get second and third jobs to take care of their families. They would have to change their whole life now according to the new schedule."
Frascona said the MFA and union are still discussing the schedule changes. "In whatever course we follow, we will continue to be mindful of the needs and welfare of our staff," she said.
Still, Henderson, who said he was considering filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, was not swayed.
"They're saying this is finalized," he said. "Jan. 3 . . . is being seen as the date that many people will have to lose their jobs."
Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.