International Foundation
for Cultural Property Protection


Defusing Potentially Dangerous Situations: A Protocol for Disruptive Visitors

April 05, 2017 5:37 PM | Rob Layne (Administrator)

Disruptive museum visitors pose many potential threats to an institution. At a minimum, they create a disturbance that may upset other visitors and interfere with the museum experience. Worse, they might create serious public safety dangers for other visitors and museum staff. They may jeopardize the building or objects in the collection. And depending on how the disruptive situation is handled, they may seriously impact the museum’s reputation with the public.

For these reasons, treatment of disruptive visitors should be a major component of every museum’s public safety plan. It is important to establish a protocol that empowers museum staff to deal with situations that are uncomfortable, complicated, and possibly hazardous.

The first step of the process is to draft a policy to which everyone can agree. Meet with staff and administrators to determine a set of rules which in an extreme situation could result in visitors being asked to leave the facility. Your policy should be posted in an area that is easily accessible and visible to the general public. As a precaution, the museum’s legal team should judiciously review the policy before you disseminate it. Finally, it is important that your staff assimilates such rules and consents to a policy designed to deal effectively with disorderly or aggressive patrons.

The second step is to ensure that your museum has a system in place to recognize and report disruptive behavior. Gallery guards are typically the first to encounter unruly visitors, but literally every staff member should be trained to quickly assess situations and evaluate the severity of the behavior. Video surveillance is essential to monitor galleries in which personnel is not present. First-hand observation of any incidents observed by staff or on video is the most appropriate means of determining whether or not an individual should be confronted. 

It is important to recognize that there are several types of unacceptable behavior that require different types of response. For example, a visitor might be confused and accidentally open a restricted access door.  A staff member’s response might be to say, “Excuse me. May I help you?”  Polite words make the visitor aware of the given violation with a minimum of distress or humiliation. Courtesy is paramount, and the dignity of the visitor must be respected. Inform the individual that their actions are prohibited by the institution and request that they refrain from repeating that specific behavior.

If visitors refuse to comply or if they were previously advised that they would be asked to leave should they repeat their behavior, then they immediately become a candidate for removal from the site. At this point the behavior would mandate escalating the response by enlisting the support of a site supervisor, security manager, or security officer in charge.  Your institution’s policies should dictate the actions necessary for removing a visitor, and it is much easier to do so if the visitor was apprised of the policies earlier in the visit.

When confronting a visitor, use an appropriate and calm approach. Your approach must be strategic in nature, never in a manner that can be perceived as hostile or threatening. This will only agitate the visitor and perhaps lead to more disruptive or dangerous behavior.  Your approach should follow these simple steps:

A. Create distance. You never want to be in a position where a visitor can get the upper hand and catch you off guard.  For this reason you should be no closer than six to eight feet from the visitor at all times.

B. B. Assume what is commonly known as the “interview stance.” This position involves keeping your arms at rest between your navel and slightly below your chest in a comfortable position. Typically, the palm of one hand rests on the backside of your opposing hand. With the combination of distance and body language, you are now in the best position for protecting yourself. If you are uncomfortable approaching an individual, you should call for back-up and notify your supervisor immediately. 

C.  Observe whether the visitor has a weapon. If the disruptive visitor is carrying a weapon or even a potential weapon (such as an umbrella or cane), you must take extreme care in deciding whether to confront. Immediately call for backup and wait for it to arrive before proceeding.

Your museum’s public safety plan should specify who has the authority to order someone removed from the premises. This may be a staff supervisor, security manager, or other trained staff who can handle stressful situations in a calm manner. To remove someone from the museum, first ask the visitor to leave voluntarily. If he or she does not comply, tell the visitor that police will be dispatched. Often the threat of arrest is all it takes for the visitor to comply. In certain situations security personnel might escort the individual to the nearest public exit. Your policy should determine procedures for escorting a visitor. Do not make the mistake of putting your hands on a visitor for any reason. The only legitimate reason for using force is to protect oneself. This should only be used as a last resort.

If the visitor attempts to re-enter the building, continues the disruptive behavior, or threatens to use a weapon, you should immediately call the police.

Planning and proper training are essential to protect the valuables of an institution and ensure public safety. Make sure you establish policies and review them regularly with all staff. Establish procedures for approaching a disruptive visitor, with personal safety as the highest goal. Follow your institution’s procedures for ejecting visitors. Determine if staff supervisors, security, or police officers are going to be used and, if so, what level of response must be employed. Try to de-escalate the situation if possible in order to resolve any issues quickly and professionally.

Stress is inevitable in the case of disorderly visitors. With prescribed rules in place, your museum can respond in a non-hostile manner and with respect for the dignity of the individual. This will minimize any disruption and help the museum return quickly to a more peaceful state. Your staff and visitors will thank you for your professional response to a troubling situation.

-Austin Sharpe, CIPM

President IFCPP NE 

Director of Security

The Addison Gallery of American Art