Risk Assessments for Museums

You handle invaluable, often irreplaceable, cultural and artistic objects. A proper Risk Assessment can help you reduce the potential for loss of or damage to of these objects, and is an essential first step in creating an effective emergency plan if you’re handling collections.

A risk assessment can be broad and comprehensive for the entire institution, or it can narrow in on a specific case, like before a collections move. In either case, the process outlined in this article will help you better prepare for the different kinds of risk.

0. Key Words

Hazard - Something capable of harming an object or collection
Risk - How likely is it that a Hazard will occur
Incident - A moment where a hazard is harming an object or collection
Mitigation - A method or strategy to reduce or limit Hazards, or lower the Risk
Preparedness - A form of mitigation that involves preparing or equipping staff
Response - The actions you take immediately, during an incident Recovery - the actions you take after an incident to get back to normal

1. Assemble A Risk Assessment Team

Your team should include members from your institution’s collections, facilities, security, and safety departments, along with any other key stakeholders. Risk Assessments are holistic, so the variety of knowledge and experience is key. Keep in mind that risk assessment is an ongoing process; your team should review the emergency plan periodically to ensure that it remains relevant. Find a regular schedule that works well for your needs; we suggest at least once a year.

2. Identify Hazards

For each of the Ten Agents of Deterioration, you should:

  • Examine previous incidents or near-misses
  • Examine local/state reports of incidents
  • Find maps (i.e. earthquake maps) for your region
  • When possible, consult with colleagues at nearby and/or similar institutions on their experiences

The FAIC has provided a good walkthrough checklist that will help you identify many potential hazards

3. Evaluate Exposure and Vulnerability

After identifying potential hazards, the team should create an exhaustive list of potential incidents. Consider both the collections and the building, then make note of how likely an incident is to occur and how much impact that incident would have. Prioritize situations with both high probability and high impact.
Here are some points to consider in your evaluation:

  • Find proven cause/effect relationships between hazard and impact
  • Work backwards from the hazard to discover what vulnerabilities would make good targets for mitigation strategies
  • Identify hazards with an outsized impact on cultural heritage
  • Consider using a 1-5 scale for probability and impact. Then, during the next step, take a closer look at hazards rated 4 and 5.

The FAIC has provided this handy spreadsheet to help determine probability/impact across the ten agents of deterioration

4. Prioritize Risks

After evaluating each hazard, the team should prioritize which risks need to be addressed immediately. They should consider the impact on the collections, visitors, staff, and the facility itself when prioritizing risks. From step 3, you should have a good idea of hazards that are the highest priority for mitigation. Use these, or a small number of them, to plan immediate mitigation strategies.

Check out The Herbert’s Risk Assessment template for real world examples of hazards they identified and prioritized

5. Mitigation Strategies

With your list of top priority hazards, and potential mitigations for each, you’re ready to start detailing out plans, timelines, and any budget requirements involved. Here are some points to consider in your mitigations strategies:

  • Prioritize mitigation strategies that require no training, e.g. contracted pest control services, automated sprinkler installation
  • Establish recurring training plans for human processes like storage and handling techniques
  • Communicate the significance of these strategies to key stakeholders, such as your director and board, to maintain high-level attention and buy-in

6. Response and Recovery

Response and recovery planning should be hazard-specific and should include procedures, supplies, equipment, and resources that can be called upon during an emergency. The team should have clear communication channels to effectively respond to and recover from an emergency. Here are some points to consider in your Response and Recovery planning:

  • Have a single place for all procedures. This could be a physical binder, a file directory on a computer, or a cloud-based word document.
  • Review documentation with one or more colleagues to catch missing details
  • Consider the physical placement of your supplies and equipment as well as the actual path(s) they will need to travel to ensure a timely response
  • Schedule a cadence for reviewing critical supplies and equipment

7. Conduct Scenario-Based Testing

After developing mitigation strategies and emergency plans, it’s time to put them to the test. While you won’t realistically be able to replicate most incidents, a scenario-based test follows these steps:

  • Recreate (or assume and explain) the conditions of an incident

  • Locate the response and recovery plans and contact the pertinent individuals

  • Follow the response and recovery plans as written
    Scenario-based testing gives you and your team the opportunity to:

  • Identify missing or stale information in the response and recovery plans

  • Train and/or remind employees how to handle incidents

  • Learn where to find documentation and who to contact

  • Raise your institution’s readiness for that particular incident


The risk assessment process is critical to ensuring the protection of collections and facilities. By conducting a thorough review of potential hazards, evaluating exposure and vulnerability, prioritizing risks, developing mitigation strategies, and planning for response and recovery, the institution will be better suited to fulfill its charter.

Would you like to read more on this subject? Here are some useful links