2020 is the poster child for risk management.

Mareike Friedrich

What are risks? A risk is considered a departure from a goal. What was my goal in 2020? Well, I can tell you that it wasn’t finishing my last semester of school from my living room while socially distancing from my classmates. However, thanks to the risk management planning of my school, my province, and my country, I was eventually able to finish my semester during a global pandemic.

For cultural heritage institutions, the goal is to preserve the collection for hundreds of years into the future. But how do you do reach this goal? How can you plan for the unexpected? How can you protect the value of your collection? How can you mitigate the risk of a global pandemic that is very much out of your control? Dr. Robert Waller of Protect Heritage addresses these concerns in a recent webinar held by the Storage, Conservation and Restoration Department of the Benfica Museum in Portugal.

The first and most critical step in a risk assessment is to identify and define those departures. It’s easy to say: “There are too many risks to count!” or “How am I supposed to know what a risk is?” Though it seems like an overwhelming task, Robert identifies generic risks (general kinds of risks) using just two keys:

  1. The ten “Agents of Change” aka Agents of Deterioration.
  2. Frequency [1) chance in 100 years, 2) every 10 years, 3) every year].

Once identified, risk scenarios need to be clearly and concisely defined. This is facilitated by formulating each risk definitions in parts using a word or phrase to describe each of three parts: source, path, and effect.

Figure 1 Source-Path-Effect method for identifying and defining specific risks to a collection. Specificity is key when conducting risk assessments. Image from webinar.

After clear definition, risks can be quantified to indicate their relative importance. Though the field has been evolving over the last 30 years, one thing remains the same: risk assessment is about prioritizing and preparing. Especially for type 1, rare and potentially catastrophic risks, the precise measure of each specific  risk doesn’t always matter . What is most important is that the risk was thought of and accounted for. Even simple awareness and a modest amount of preparation can make a big difference.