Risk Management in Cultural Heritage Preservation: A Comprehensive Approach

What to do first? What are the priorities of the heritage asset in its specific context? How to optimize the use of available resources to maximize the benefits of the cultural heritage over time?

Heritage managers and caretakers face the challenging task of prioritizing resources to safeguard collections, buildings, monuments, and sites. This involves making decisions on security measures, maintenance, environmental controls, and disaster preparedness. Determining priorities and optimizing resource use for long-term cultural heritage preservation can be achieved through effective risk management. This process allows for the assessment and comparison of various risks, aiding in decision-making and resource planning. To address the difficult topic of the analysis and management of risks to which historical and cultural heritage is exposed, ICCROM published in 2016 an abridged version of the 2016 handbook “The ABC method – A risk management approach to the preservation of cultural heritage”, a joint publication of the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) and ICCROM. The new document is the  “Guide to Risk Management of Cultural Heritage”.

Cover of the 2016 ICCROM – CCI “Guide to Risk Management of Cultural Heritage”.

The Guide defines risk as the likelihood of an event with negative consequences occurring. It involves both the probability and the expected impact of an adverse event. For example, the risk of a plane crash is minimal, but its impact is catastrophic, while the risk of developing cardiovascular disease due to a sedentary lifestyle has a higher probability and serious consequences. Similarly, risks in cultural heritage range from sudden events like earthquakes and fires to gradual processes such as degradation, all contributing to a loss of value in heritage assets.

Cultural heritage faces diverse risks, including sudden catastrophic events and gradual degradation processes. Major earthquakes, floods, fires, armed conflicts, and chemical, physical, or biological degradation can result in significant loss of value to heritage assets. Material damage, loss of information, or restricted access to heritage items all contribute to this loss. Heritage managers must comprehend these risks to make informed decisions about protection and access, ensuring the heritage’s preservation for future generations.

Risk management not only aids in decision-making but also fosters collaboration across disciplines and sectors. It facilitates transparent communication of risks to decision-makers, helping establish priorities. Collaboration among various stakeholders ensures a holistic approach to risk mitigation and preservation efforts.

One key advantage of risk management is its ability to encourage collaboration among different disciplines and sectors. Effective communication ensures that decision-makers are well-informed about risks and priorities. This interdisciplinary approach is essential for addressing complex challenges, such as the trade-offs between preservation, access, and environmental sustainability.

The joint publication of the Canadian Conservation Institute and ICCROM introduces the ABC method, an application for risk management in the conservation of cultural heritage. This method encompasses a systematic approach to assess and prioritize risks. It involves understanding the context and significance of heritage, conducting a global risk assessment, communicating effectively with stakeholders, and developing economically viable measures to mitigate and prioritize risks.

Heritage managers need to value and assess the risks specific to their context. This understanding allows for more effective and sustainable decision-making regarding the use and preservation of cultural heritage. Considering limited resources, managers must make informed choices to optimize conservation efforts and benefit society over time.

The Guide emphasizes the importance of acquiring a new perspective on heritage management through the lens of risk. It underscores the significance of understanding the context, conducting a global risk assessment, communicating with diverse stakeholders, and developing economically viable measures to mitigate and prioritize risks. The goal is to inspire continuous learning and improvement in the field of cultural heritage preservation.

Risk management plays a crucial role in guiding heritage managers and caretakers in making informed decisions about resource allocation and preservation strategies. By understanding and valuing the risks specific to cultural heritage, professionals can optimize conservation efforts and ensure the long-term benefit of these valuable assets for society. The Guide serves as a starting point for a journey towards acquiring knowledge and competencies that contribute to the safeguarding and conservation of cultural heritage. Continued attention to training opportunities and information sharing is crucial for advancing the field of risk management in cultural heritage preservation.

The Guide can be downloaded for free from the ICCROM website