Shocking museum damages and losses: Museums must stop being shocked and start developing perspectives!

The museum world is repeatedly and regularly “shocked” by experiences of damage and loss from their collections.

Take for example:

2017 Museum theft: The discovery of stolen rare books from the Carnegie library

2018 Museum fire: Fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in September

2019 Museum theft: Theft of jewels from Dresden’s Green room in November

2020 Seismic damage: Earthquake damages museums in Puerto Rico

2021 Museum fire: Forest fires destroy two museums in Lytton, British Columbia

2022 Physical damage: Discovery of broken items in the National Palace Museum of Taiwan

2023 Museum theft: The discovery of jewelry items stolen from the British Museum

2024 ????: Your museum?

Seven high-profile events in seven years and this is just a small sampling, far from a comprehensive list.
We should be shocked, but how should we respond to the shocks?

As they should be, museums are always happy to highlight continual increases in the value of their collections through new acquisitions and by way of research adding information about, and understanding of, their collections. Because most risks to collections in most museums are actively, if not always effectively, managed; museums tend to assume their management strategies result in zero risk to collections. That is understandable as it is a common, perhaps inevitable, result of a zero-risk bias we, as humans, are all vulnerable to.

Museums can continue in denial of the fact that all collections suffer loss in value through ongoing damages and losses from a  diversity of hazards and threats. A consequence of that will be ongoing shocks resulting from globally common, but individually rare, events. A worse consequence will be shifts in resource allocation from the long-term, most significant risks to addressing the singular risk that resulted in the most recent, shocking event. By adopting a reactive risk management strategy, many of the major causes of damage to collections get overlooked. A shift in risk management priorities based on a reaction response to a shock, even if accompanied by some additional resources, will often lead to higher overall risk to the collections.

Just as a knowledgeable investor will follow an investment strategy to avoid accruing unnecessary losses and not fall victim to panic selling, a museum must have a collection risk management strategy built on a foundation of evidence-based risk analysis. In fact, such a system was introduced to the field thirty years ago, the Cultural Property Risk Analysis Model (CPRAM; Waller 2003, 2008, 2019). That system was specifically designed to allow medium to large museums to understand their overall collection risk profiles. In recent years, the system has evolved to allow each museum function to see the impact of their own decisions and resource allocations on impacting the collection risk profile. Each relevant decision maker is empowered to use all of their professional and contextual knowledge to best effect by becoming appropriately risk informed. This system can be seamlessly integrated into existing museum management structures and systems. Over the past ten to twenty years, other collection risk assessment approaches have been introduced for advising smaller museums or for special purposes such as informing emergency planning.

Our field does not need to continue to be shocked by events or discoveries of substantial damage or loss to their collections. To escape that cycle, they simply must engage in comprehensive collection risk analysis and management.

Literature cited

Waller, R. (2003). Cultural Property Risk Analysis Model: Development and Application to Preventive Conservation at the Canadian Museum of Nature.  Göteborg Studies in Conservation 13, ISSN 0284-6578; ISBN 91-7346-475-9 Göteborg Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, Göteborg.  xvi + 189 p.p.

Waller, R. (2008). Comprehensive risk assessment: Applying the cultural property risk analysis model to the Canadian Museum of Nature.  In: NATO Science for Peace and Security Series-C: Environmental Security: Real Time and Deliberative Decision Making. I. Linkov, E. Ferguson, and V.S. Magar (Eds.) pp. 179-190.

Waller, R. (2019). Collection risk assessment. pp. 59-90 in Preventive Conservation: Collection Storage, edited by Lisa Elkin and Christopher A. Norris. New York: Society for the Preservation of Natural History; American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works; Smithsonian Institution; The George Washington University Museum Studies Program. ISBN 978-0-9978679-2-3. (PDF) Waller Chapter 4 Collection Risk Assessment (

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