What is risk?

Risk has been defined as:

'The chance of something happening that will have an impact on objectives.' [1]

In the late twentieth century the assessment and management of risk became relevant to fields outside the traditional ones of insurance and engineering, and also financing. For example, project management now includes a 'risk' or 'issues' register that should be periodically updated.

Collections researchers began searching for ways of more accurately predicting causes and types of damage to collections in the late 1980's. [2] These investigations led to the publication of several differing approaches to assessing and managing risks to collections.

For a particular collection the following 10 agents of deterioration [3]  are discussed in consideration of the frequency and severity of the types of risk at that location (constant, sporadic, rare / catastrophic, severe, gradual).

  1. physical forces
  2. thieves and vandals
  3. dissociation
  4. fire
  5. water
  6. pests
  7. pollutants
  8. light, ultraviolet and infrared
  9. incorrect temperature
  10. incorrect relative humidity

While risk assessment is fundamentally a qualitative process (based on subjective human decisions), most of the published methods typically quantify the likelihood of risks once they are identified. The purer probabilistic methods derive a figure of between 0 and 1 for each collection investigated. [4]

People generally like to quantify identified risks in order to gain a sense of proportion. One leading author in this field warns that risk assessment and reduction should not become an obsessive end in itself, but rather that it be seen firmly in the larger context of the collecting organisation as a business. [5]

Most of these methods include consideration of 'value' and 'loss of value' in their decision-making processes. But herein lies the rub. When considering value in regard to scientific and cultural collections the easiest way of representing it is as monetary value. While this can be convenient if estimates are available, it is generally agreed that monetary value can never adequately capture the true meanings and multiple values the item / collection holds for every individual / organisation.

At Significance International our approach to risk focuses on the exploration of multiple values and decision-making processes. In our training we recommend that people prepare for a risk management workshop by taking a Significance Assessment Workshop first. Click here to read about our inaugural Significance Assessment Workshop in 2010. To read about our first Risk Management for Collecting Organisations Workshop click here, and to access the 'References and Resources' list prepared for this workshop click here. If you want to go straight to the official international standard for risk management (AS/NZS ISO: 31000 (2009)), visit the Official Standards page here.

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Associate Roslyn Russell demonstrating the forging of a horseshoe at the reconstituted blacksmith's shop from 'Googong Farm', Australia. Courtesy Queanbeyan Museum, Australia.

[1] AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009 Australian, New Zealand and International Standard for Risk Management - Principles and Guidelines, p 1. Available for purchase from SAI Global

[2] 'Norbert Baer…should be credited with the introduction of risk assessment to the field of conservation' Ashley-Smith, J., 1999, Risk Assessment for Object Conservation, Butterworth-Heineman, Oxford, p 22, referring to Baer, N.S., 1991, Assessment and Management of Risks to Cultural Property, Proceedings of the European Symposium, Science, Technology and European Cultural Heritage, Bologna, Italy, 13-16 June 1989, Butterworth-Heinemann for the commission of the European Communities, p 27.

[3] See the Canadian Conservation Institute's 'Ten Agents of Deterioration'

[4] For example, Waller, Robert, R., 2003, Cultural Property Risk Analysis Model – development and application of preventive conservation at the Canadian Museum of Nature, Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, Göteborg, Sweden

[5] Ashley-Smith, J., 1999, Risk Assessment for Object Conservation, Butterworth-Heineman, Oxford, pp 6-8

   Margaret Birtley measures up
     Associate Margaret Birtley
     provides archival housing for
     an object in the Albert Park
     South Melbourne Rowing Club