Beth Nunan of the American Museum of Natural History described an almost 10-year approach to gather data across the many departments of the museum, using the cultural property risk assessment model (modified for AMNH). No one wants their risk assessment survey to sit on a shelf, and one thing is for certain: if the data cannot be compared across collections, the data will stay unused and uninterpreted. Even if the data is used, it can be called into question if the tools that captured and analyzed the information are perceived as biased.
Here are some of the takeaways from the AMNH approach:
1) The more complex the collection program at a museum, the more difficult it is to comprehensively apply and manage a risk assessment project. At the American Museum of Natural History there are millions of specimens ranging from vertebrates to botanical specimens and including libraries and archives.
2) There is a trend that AMNH is following about being able to compare risk assessment data with other like museums. Sharing risk assessment data and finding benchmarks across the museum field is becoming important; so risk assessment surveys should consider what will be the common data points shared with other museums, and what the definitions of those data points are.
3) Once tools are developed they should be shared with other professionals to amplify the use of the tools at other institutions. Groups like Collection Care Network and others are seeking to standardize templates and tools in order to facilitate comparison.
4) Partners are crucial to the success of risk assessments. Partners are frequently allied professionals, such as curators, librarians and archivists.
It’s clear that AMNH has many challenges in developing the tools it has used for risk assessment, but I expect we will hear much more from the conservators there as they promote their tools and lead other natural history museums towards this smart way of evaluating risks.