Collections Risk Assessment: Leading the Way

Muse October 2006

Risk Assessment & Management (RM) for museum collections has been defined as a tool that allows curators and conservators to identify risks threatening a collections, and systematically quantify and prioritize them. Resources can then be best directed according to the immediacy of each risk. The concept is a recent development that has gained momentum in the museum community over the past decade; and Canada has taken a world lead.

Muse writer Graham Chandler talks to leading Canadian experts about RM. From the Canadian Conservation Institute: Jeanne Inch, Director General; Charlie Costain, Director of Conservation & Scientific Services, and Stefan Michalski, Senior Conservation Scientist; from the Canadian Museum of Nature: Rob Waller, Chief of Conservation; and from the Royal BC Museum, Grant Hughes, Director of Curatorial Services.


GC: How is RM important to museums?

JI: As our world becomes more and more complex, businesses and governments are increasingly turning to RM as a decision-making tool, especially in managing risks to health and environment.

In Canada, as in many other countries, governments are using RM to better manage outcomes, to identify risks and then take strategic action to overcome them. In fact, every Government of Canada program must have a risk management strategy that identifies and addresses risks related to its operations and program objectives.

As an example, two programs of the Department of Canadian Heritage—Moveable Cultural Property and Canada Traveling Exhibitions Indemnification Program—have as a component part reducing risks to heritage objects and collections. CCI’s role in this is to provide independent and expert technical assessments of museum facilities.

Why RM? Because risks are identified and addressed; results are improved through informed decision-making, accountability is strengthened, and the public service capacity to safeguard people, government property and interests is strengthened.


GC : Assessing and managing risk to a collection sounds simply logical. Why wasn’t it thought of before? How did it get started?

CC : It started in the 1970s with Preventive Conservation, focusing on things that were specific to museums. Things like light levels, humidity, pollutants—that was PC. But then they were getting fixated on things like relative humidity, when perhaps they didn’t have decent locks on their front door or didn’t have any fire control systems in place.

In the 1980s Stefan [Michalski] put together a framework for conservation which defined agents of deterioration, a fairly comprehensive list of everything that could go wrong with your collection—from physical damage like dropping on the floor, building collapse, a bomb, fire security, water damage and pollutants. I think it was a good first step because it made the collection managers’ tasks a little easier in that they could see that there was a finite number of things they had to worry about.

SM: In the 1990s, several of us in PC research and advice, such as Jean Tétreault, Tom Strang, Paul Marcon, and myself at CCI, Rob Waller at CMN, Jonathan Ashley-Smith in the UK, Agnes Brokerhof in the Netherlands, Catherine Antomarchi at ICCROM in Rome, were becoming frustrated with the limitations of the traditional guidelines and standards approach to PC. Each of us in our own way realized that resources were often being spent with no idea of effectiveness, that priorities were often wrong, that issues were fragmented, and that we had no good answer to the dilemma of most museums who asked: “I can’t do everything I’m supposed to do in Preventive Conservation or climate control or all that, where should I start? What’s really important?” We began piecing together models to make something systematic and comprehensive so we could find priorities. Some of us intuited the basic elements of risk assessment and added them to our approaches, some of us like Rob immediately began using the established risk assessment literature to develop ideas.

CC: It’s a small community. Rob came and worked with us in the 80s and early 90s. The CMN have millions of specimens, very well organized into taxa so he started going through them systematically and soon the keepers moved into the methodology. Rob went and did a PhD on it. It’s really through his work that it has now moved on to others like the Royal BC Museum.


GC: Robert, how would you describe CMN’s role in the RM development process?

RW: We conceived of a system of risk assessment and management for museum collections in 1986. The system was developed to fill our institution’s desire to make wise decisions on investments in preserving its collections. At that time, organizations like CCI, the Getty Conservation Institute and the Smithsonian’s Conservation Analytical Laboratory were making great advances in our understanding of Preventive Conservation issues. The “Framework for Preventive Conservation” developed by CCI, for example, was an extremely important stepping stone to a risk-based approach by providing a complete map of Preventive Conservation concerns. Still, a major step was required to move from these knowledge description schemes to an operable collection risk analysis method.

The opportunity for the CMN came when, in 1992, separate management systems were established for the research function and the collection management function. At that time, and for the first time, we clearly faced the opportunity to and the challenge of allocating collection preservation resources where they were most needed. We realized that no system to enable this was in place, nor under development, but that our work on developing a theory of collection risk assessment was going in the right direction. Our first full collection risk assessment was completed in 1993.

GC: Grant, the Royal BC Museum was another earlier adopter of RM. What prompted that?

GH: Since the mid-1990s we have done risk assessments on some components of our collection to identify the greatest threat to an individual area. For example, we documented that the greatest risk to large artifacts in the offsite storage facility was potential damage from earthquake due to our substandard racking.

Our more comprehensive approach began just after the BC Archives and the Royal BC Museum were combined as the new Royal BC Museum corporation in 2003. With a much broader series of collection types we decided that we needed an objective approach to placing the potential risks to the collection in a framework for analysis.

GC: How has RM helped your respective institutions?

RW: There are many benefits, both internal and external. Internally, our understanding of the collection preservation challenge is much clearer. This is true at all levels from collection technicians through management to governance. This has enabled us to define what constitutes essential maintenance of the collections and what specific projects are required to address urgent preservation issues. At the same time, we are able to see that some of the issues that worried us were not so important as we had feared, or were already adequately controlled, and we could let our attention and energy be directed to more significant issues.

Communication among all persons in the organization with an influence on collection preservation is greatly enhanced. A team spirit for achieving the preservation goal is achieved. As they say in the credit card commercial, that is priceless.

GH: The risk assessment approach that we followed has helped to place the risks that we knew about, or suspected, in context. Each conservator and collection manager knows what needs to be done to improve the collection care in their particular area. However, the priorities may not be quantified nor comparable across the organization.

We can now compare across collections and across risk types. This lets us see where a variety of collections may be facing the same risk type and a global solution can be sought instead of a series of individual solutions in the various collection areas. We can then set priorities and support the need for their solution on a quantitative basis to our board and in funding applications.


GC: What have been some of your biggest headaches with RM and how did you deal with them?

RW: The biggest headache was achieving the buy-in required to get over the initial difficulties and high time cost of doing a complete, prototype collection risk assessment. Initially this could not be avoided since CMN was at once both the developer of the method and the first test case. It was not just an internal problem but much of the field of conservation was skeptical and critical of the approach.

Internally, a strong management champion was required. That role was filled by Gerald Fitzgerald, then Director of Collection Services. He was unrelenting in his support and encouragement for the development of the system. Externally, the CMN maintained an active program of publications, lectures and professional workshops, including Assessing and Managing Risks to Your Collections at the Canadian Museums Association 1997 AGM. Gradually, acceptance of the risk-based approach to preservation developed from initial disdain to the point where it has now won awards including the Canadian Museums Association 2002 Outstanding Achievement Award for a Conservation Project, and has recently become a priority for major conservation service organizations such as CCI and the Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN).

GH: Our biggest headache is trying to quantify the probability of a future occurrence that will impact on the value of a collection object—when the event hasn’t even happened. In many cases we estimated risk based upon past experience or external documentation such as the probability of an earthquake or a fire.

Since we had many staff working on the project we could see that some estimates for the same type of risk differed significantly between staff. Our solution was for the Head of Conservation and me to review every one of the 1,032 risk calculations to ensure that there was a consistent approach to comparable risks.


GC: It sounds like accurate risk evaluation is critical to RM. How are risks quantified generally?

RW: Our first (1993) collection risk assessment provided us with information supporting the need for a new collection housing facility and providing guidance on its cost-effective design. The result was CMN’s new Natural Heritage Building. It also identified requirements for baseline collection maintenance and a number of discrete collection care projects. After moving into the new building and establishing appropriate policies and procedures we conducted our second, 1998, collection risk assessment. Learning from the experience of the first assessment allowed us to fully develop the full theory and method now known as the Cultural Property Risk Analysis Model (CPRAM).

CPRAM clarifies and documents the standard for collection maintenance. One has to know very well what is being done to care for a collection before being able to assess remaining risks. Management then understands and controls maintenance to collections depending on needs, use, and, not least, value. Objects within collections fall within one of five categories of value where value could be either scientific, historical, or monetary attributed, and is attributed according to fixed guidelines.

Residual risks, given the current situation regarding housing, maintenance and use, are then evaluated for importance. Risks identified as high may either be high and certain or high and uncertain. Risks that are high and certain are given priority for mitigation. Risks that are high and uncertain are either mitigated, if that can be done at reasonable cost, or further evaluated. Further evaluation might be needed to decide what should be done, and/or to support a proposal for a risk mitigating project. The CPRAM allows management to explore the effects of different assumptions about object and collection values to determine whether decisions are sensitive to those assumptions. This is often not as significant an issue as institutions might first fear.

GH: We recognize that some archival records, artifacts or specimens may be more “valuable” than others in terms of fair market value or for a certain purpose.

In order to prioritize areas for attention our solution is to include staff judgment of what is an appropriate area to address even if there is a lower risk to a small collection type of immense “value”. On balance, however, we use a quantitative approach to try and determine the areas of maximum concern. Our approach was to focus on risks that were more than three standard deviations above the mean. These became our priorities and risks were further consolidated for action by including as many objects as possible into improved collections care strategies.

Value is key to assigning priorities, but must be balanced against the proportion and size of the collection at risk and the probability of the risk affecting the collection. Collection managers and conservators must work together to assign priorities, based on these factors as well as other practical considerations.

SM: I don’t think anything like a standard or widely used protocol exists for relative value assessment of museum objects. There is certainly a growing literature worldwide on methods for assessing value, or significance, of cultural heritage, both for historic sites and for museum collections. Many methods were driven by emergency preparedness planning, triage, but some were driven by limits in museum resources, and others by the ongoing search for social and political justification.

We are currently developing a bibliography on [risk assessment techniques] for our ICCROM-CCI course in October.

GC: What are the essential elements of RM that CCI teaches in the courses?

JI: CCI's mission is to enhance the capacity of heritage institutions in Canada to preserve [our] material cultural heritage, so that it can be made accessible to current and future generations. The Institute achieves this through research, expert services and knowledge dissemination (publications and training). In the area of risk assessment, we are undertaking research, providing expert services (assessments of heritage facilities) and disseminating knowledge (the international course on assessing risks to collections), workshops for conservators and collection managers in Canada.

SM: I begin with the standard informal definition of risk as “the likelihood of loss of value”, then the standard [RM] notion that risk is measured by combining a measure of likelihood with a measure of loss of value. I then extend these notions that usually apply to single events, like fire and theft, to continual deterioration processes like pollution attack, light fading, and cracking from humidity fluctuations. Finally, I emphasize the idea of a risk “scenario”, the story you must invent of what might go wrong if nothing changes, so that you can assess the risk.

In fact, I like to start my seminars by getting straight into participants just DOING assessments of a storage situation I show on a projector, using simple scales of 1 to 5 for loss of value, likelihood and rate, and fraction of the collection affected. Within ten minutes, people are discussing judgments, differences of opinion, and sources of uncertainty. I have never found a group that didn’t understand the idea of risk assessment quickly, but they certainly question whether it is meaningful or reliable or practical! They immediately recognize that the “loss of value” assessment for partial damage, such as colour fading, or tiny brown stains from poor quality boxes, is the crux of finding priorities, and the reason why [RM] must combine knowledge not just from conservators, but from curators. All these issues are exactly where we are all working to develop the method.

GC: What would be your suggestions for smaller museums and those with limited budgets?

SM: Two very important parts of traditional risk management: emergency preparedness, and insurance coverage, do it as soon as possible if you haven’t already. Get to the excellent current CMA seminar on the subject of insurance given by Sonya Tanner-Kaplash. And contact CCI for information on emergency planning.

RW: Learn about doing a collection risk assessment. If possible, attend a workshop to learn, practice, and discuss issues with others. Conduct a trial assessment on a reduced scale, a room, a set of objects, or a few risks, to build familiarity and confidence with the process. Communicate as broadly as possible at all stages to ensure you have all the needed commitment and cooperation. The CMN has helped dozens of museums, libraries and archives of all sizes undertake collection and/or heritage building risk assessments.

GH: The risk assessment process is scalable to smaller institutions. I think that the key message is to learn the process well and to develop risk estimates that are close enough without getting too hung up on the very low probability risks. I would recommend that the entire collection be considered for analysis in order to get the top priorities for the whole institutional collection. Also, consider that the first stab at risk assessment is part of the learning process. As staff becomes more familiar with the process and possible outcomes, each subsequent risk assessment becomes easier and more accurate.

GC: Where do you see RM evolving in future?

JI: CCI’s intention is to continue to work in risk assessment: undertaking research, providing expert services (assessments of heritage facilities), disseminating knowledge (the international course on assessing risks to collections) and providing workshops for conservators and collection managers in Canada. Our focus will be on developing tools to help small and mid-sized museums identify their risks and set up strategies to prevent those risks from happening.

RW: After more than ten years of working on risk-based priorities for collection care, priorities are not as easy to identify as they once were. Further priority setting requires more advanced risk analytical methods. Further development of those methods is occurring in collaboration or partnership with CCI, ICN and other centres for conservation research. In conjunction with the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada (ANHMC) the CMN intends to work with others to consider risk to Canada’s natural history collections as a whole. Finally, there is the challenge of extending rational planning to areas of collection development and use. As was the case for the CPRAM, developing such planning methods is expected to benefit not just CMN and the ANHMC but all museums in Canada and elsewhere.

SM: CCI has formed a partnership with ICCROM in Rome, and with the National Institute of Conservation for the Netherlands, to develop the tools necessary to allow smaller museums to do risk assessment. It is a very exciting time for risk management of museum collections!


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