Evaluation tools in the field of risk management were based on those developed for use in the insurance industry, and are increasingly used by cultural institutions, such as museums and universities, to identify the greatest risks to their collections. The results of these evaluations can inform procedures to plan for and reduce the effects of unavoidable disasters.
Risk assessments can be adapted to evaluate risks at a very broad and comprehensive level across an entire institution or department, or to zero in on a narrow range of materials or specific conditions (e.g. risk evaluation prior to a collections move). The most common risks to museum collections are often called the 10 Agents of Deterioration.
A risk assessment—whether formal or informal, extensive or just on a representative portion of a collection—is generally an administrative tool to prioritize the implementation of measures to preserve the collection. The goal is to prevent damage or at least to limit the extent of the damage by determining:
- What percentage of the collection is susceptible to a specific risk?
- What could be the resulting loss in value?
- What is the probability of the event happening?
- What would be the extent of the event?
The risk assessment should include inspection of the collections as well as the building, and should be updated as changes to staff and facility occur. Tools for developing a collections risk management program at your institution can be found in the Resources at the end of this page.
Risk Assessment at the Museum
In addition to the wear and tear of time and exposure that normally endanger museum collections, larger scale events such as September 11, 2001, the Northeast Blackout of 2003, and Hurricane Katrina have emphasized the threats to collections and underscored the importance of a comprehensive approach to risk planning.
In response, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has been steadfastly committed to identifying a complete picture of its collections priorities, and is accomplishing an overall risk assessment of its research, exhibit and library/archive collections. The assessment model used for this three-phase project is based on the Cultural Property Risk Analysis Model (CPRAM) developed by Robert Waller and colleagues at the Canadian Museum of Nature and adapted to accommodate the specific needs of a large, complex institution. These assessments have provided AMNH administrators with information crucial to making long-term strategy and policy decisions about reducing and mitigating risks to collections.
The Cultural Property Risk Analysis Model (CPRAM) provided us with a framework to develop a risk management program tailored to suit the needs of a large, varied, and actively used collection. By prioritizing strategic organization of the numerous layers of information collected as part of each risk assessment phase, we have been able to refine the application to be equally efficient and effective. The high-level comprehensive data collected thus far has had far reaching benefits by providing administrators with information crucial to making long-term strategy and policy decisions about mitigating the risks to the museum’s collections. In fact, in June 2008 the Museum added risk assessment to its overall collections management policy thus emphasizing the need for proactive risk mitigation tactics instead of reactive, impulsive decisions based on subjective evaluations. Additionally, the ability to create customized reports has given fundraising staff the necessary tools to speak to donors about high priority projects.
The Collections Risk Management Program at the AMNH was started in 2005, with help of funding through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). With staff committed to managing the program, the level of data collected during the process could be more detailed, allowing for a more comprehensive evaluation. Some of the tools developed to aid the data collection phase are provided here. These examples can be used as guides; each institution should work to create a risk management system that is customized to its particular needs.
As the risk management program grew from evaluating collections in storage, to those on exhibit, to the departmental libraries and archives, it became crucial to establish a written methodology for approaching each phase. Since its founding in 1869, the AMNH has developed to span 16 acres, containing 26 interconnected buildings and covering a total of 1.6 million square feet of space. The oldest building was built in 1877 and the newest dates from 2022. There are 46 public halls, four temporary gallery spaces, 400+ collection storage rooms, 26 laboratories, one main library as well as supplemental libraries and archives in nearly every department. The collections, which number approximately 32 million, continue to grow by approximately 90,000 catalogued entries per year. Almost all of these items are stored on-site.
By developing a methodology document outlining the evaluation process, a guideline is established for maintaining consistency and limiting biases as evaluations are revisited in the future.
Collection Unit Descriptions
In order evaluate risks in a way that is both comprehensive and qualitative, collections are often grouped into units based on similar attributes. For example at the AMNH, collection units are organized by Scientific Division, Department, and Material Type (e.g. Vertebrate Zoology – Mammalogy – Skins). The Collection Unit Description template was developed to aid in collecting information that might be used when evaluating risks.
Value Assignment Discussion
Establishing the potential loss in value for a collection unit is considered by some to be the most difficult step in the evaluation process. It is important to consider value as an intangible aspect of a collection and often derived from its use and context. Value may be a combination of many facets, such as educational use, scientific research potential, and aesthetic and artistic significance. Colleagues in Australia have published many articles discussing significance in the context of museum collections. To aid in estimating potential loss in value, we asked evaluators to develop a Statement of Significance discussing the various use-values of each collection unit; and a Loss in Value Rubric to support the risk evaluation process as means for standardizing degrees of value lost.
The ability to generate reports is critical when presenting the results of a risk assessment. A database developed to hold our risk assessment data, Scientific Collections Risk Evaluation database (SCoRE), allows for the immediate creation of a selection of reports that organize data by Collection Unit, Department, Division or Museum-wide.
Collection Reports: Collection Unit Content, Size and Distribution
These reports document the storage and use of the collections at a particular point in time, the breakdown of specimen counts by department, division and/or museum wide, and the distribution of collections throughout the campus. In addition to being useful for collections and conservation staff, these documents also have the potential to inform annual reporting and planning.
Location Reports: Security, IPM and HVAC Conditions
These reports show the breakdown of specimens by specific security and environmental conditions. They provide summary data concerning the physical conditions of the collections storage and the percentage of collections stored under the given parameters. One example of the utility of such a report might be in highlighting the breakdown of specimens housed in storage conditions with sprinklers versus those housed without.
Risk Summary Reports: Risk Estimation Logic, Risk Profiles and Matrices, and Mitigation Scenarios
Risk Estimation Logic Reports outline the detailed documentation of the logic used when quantifying the variables that make up the magnitude of risk. It is imperative that this data be documented and archived carefully as it is the backbone of the magnitude of risk number. The risk profiles and matrices create comparative summaries, and the final risk data can be presented in a number of formats: bar charts, pie charts or simple chart form. One way of evaluating the data is to visualize all of the museum departments side-by-side to determine department level priorities. This provides a quick snapshot of how the departments rate against one another. More importantly, it is possible to determine which collection unit has the highest risk exposure by reconfiguring the data to summarize at the collection unit level. This could reveal that some collections within a department are in excellent shape, while others still require improvement.
In addition to creating divisional, departmental, and collection level risk summaries, the assessment data can be used to provide visual examples of how mitigating potential risks could decrease the vulnerabilities of the museum’s collection and change the risk profile. These are called Risk Mitigation Scenarios. Such scenarios can be based on actual accomplishments or can be developed as a tool to convince an audience that the funding provided will make a change. These kinds of before-and-after examples have been very effective with administrative audiences and can be used to show a variety of scenarios, including how—with a series of short, medium and long-term mitigation strategies—the Museum could reduce its risk exposure from the current situation to an acceptable state.
Additional Resources on Risk Assessment
- The Risk Evaluation and Planning Program originally developed by Heritage Preservation and now hosted by the Foundation for the Advancement in Conservation includes several resources:
- The risk prioritization worksheet - a tool to help rate risks based on the likelihood of occurrence and severity of potential damage.
- The walk-through checklist - helps staff identify a variety of conditions that may make institutions more susceptible to internal and external hazards.
- Tips on getting started on preparedness; mitigation; the basic contents of an emergency plan and steps for developing a plan.
- Risk Assessment Of Collections In Exhibitions At The Canadian Museum Of Nature by Garnet Muething, Robert Waller, & Fiona Graham JAIC 2005, Volume 44, Number 3, Article 7 (pp. 233 to 243)
- The Minnesota Historical Society offers a series of technical leaflets called TechTalk. Museum Security Thinking Ahead about Museum Protection: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure by Diane Adams-Graf and Claudia J. Nicholson provides information for small museums to develop a risk management program. It includes checklists with essential elements for 8 program areas, including insurance, guards, fire protection, security, and locks & keys.
- The Nonprofit Risk Management Center offers an online risk management tutorial and a Resource Library which offers fact sheets on risk management, liability, and insurance. The Resource Center also provides free technical assistance to nonprofits
- Museum SOS: a website for disaster preparation and response
- Protect Heritage Corp. works with museums and other heritage property managers to guide them to establish rational, risk-based strategies for protecting collections.
- Lisa Elkin, Elizabeth Nunan.