Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Risky Business

From the desk of Colleen Wilson, Conservator
at the Royal BC Museum

In the past, Scots prayed to be delivered from “ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night”.

But what about dropping and soiling and losses of data? We hope to deliver the collections of the Royal BC Museum to future generations free of these threats and more.

Judicious care can make a difference to longevity, but with huge and varied collections and limited budgets, what to do first? Replace cardboard boxes? Install ultraviolet filters? Put furs in cold storage? Put plastics in cold storage? Put all collections in cold storage?

This was a fur hat before the clothes moths found it and reduced it to hide. We have not had a major pest infestaion since Integrated Pest Management began 25 years ago.

In the Olden Days, such decisions were made by hoary alpha males with a lifetime of devotion to their particular discipline. Ornithologists argued for budgets for birds, archaeologists lobbied for dirt, cartographers for maps, but their expertise was in the study and acquisition of collections, not long term storage and maintenance. And there was considerable scope for charisma – a really eloquent historian, mounted on his hobby-horse, could corral money and staff, leaving a shrinking entomologist with little more than a butterfly net. Overall collections care was sometimes erratic.

We live in more rational times. The Museum’s experts now include collections managers and conservators who are at this moment involved in Collections Risk Assessment. Although it sounds like a project only an insurance adjuster could love, numbers can clarify in a way that words may not. When asked about the likelihood of a “probable” event, staff rated it as anywhere from 25% to 95%; “unlikely” could mean 1% to 45%, depending on whom you ask. Arguing for action is always more effective if data can be cited.

This fire at the Carving Studio happened in 1981. This winter Helmcken House will get a sprinkler system.

Using a formula developed at the Canadian Museum of Nature by Dr. Robert Waller, the Magnitudes of Risk are being determined using information from all collections. “Risk of what?” you may ask. Physical forces, fire, water, criminals, pests, contaminants, light, inappropriate temperature, inappropriate relative humidity and disassociation of information all threaten collections. They can be rare and catastrophic, sporadic, of intermediate severity or frequent and mild. We ask what fraction of each collection is susceptible to each risk. When is it likely to happen? How much of the value could be lost? Of course there are many kinds of value, so how can we recognize when value is lost? Some collections have monetary value, (for insurance purposes) but the worth of research specimens can scarcely be calculated in dollars and cents. Most items in our collections can never be replaced, and their cultural significance cannot be quantified. Is a basket less valuable when faded? What if the colour is still visible inside? Not surprisingly probability is easier to determine than value: we infer the future by examining our history and history is our business. How many artifacts have been stolen in the past ten years? How many roof leaks? How many specimens dropped?

A contracting protractor. Some plastics are not going to be with us forever - cellulose acetate and cellulose nitrate break down giving off damaging fumes.

Risk Assessment is a means of ranking dangers. Is the risk of damage from an earthquake greater than the accelerating disintegration of cellulose nitrate film? Repeating the exercise demonstrates how effective improvements have been and pinpoints what to do next. This will be our third risk assessment to ensure that we are deploying resources wisely, protecting the province’s heritage from flooding and fading and acid migration, not to mention the things that go bump in the night.

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The Royal BC Museum is located in Victoria, British Columbia on Canada's west coast. We preserve BC's human and natural history and share it with the world. How do we do that? That's what this blog is about.

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