Museums in Danger: Before disaster strikes – alliances and preparation

Fire, water, air and earth – such sometimes artificial appearing institutions as museums, are no strangers to the four classical elements. Especially, when it comes to disasters. Damage through fires, flooding, earth quakes or heavy storms has grown over the years. And the call to respond quickly is rising.

With our third article in this series, we want to introduce existing tools and alliances that help you to prepare and respond when your collections are in danger.
First of all, let’s look at two main aspects in this: Strong networks and helpful tools.

Helping hands through bitter fate

In 2002, several European countries were hit by major floods. They represented a turning point in the storage and safeguarding of collections in the city of Dresden, Germany as the overflowing river Elbe lead to an estimated damage to the States’ art collections, namely the “Gemäldegalerie”, of 20 million Euro. 

One of the lessons learned was that institutions should and could support each other. Either in responding to a disaster or being prepared. While the institutional and government level was not aware of this yet, museum workers took it to their own. This grassroots movement led to a number of alliances at local, regional, national and international level (German website

Screenshot of [last accessed 14 May 2024]

The formation of such alliances is especially valuable for smaller institutions with less resources. At “Museums in Danger”, we will share more on the benefit and development of such networks.

Getting started

While strong networks are extremely valuable, you first need to know what you need.
A group of registrars, collection managers and conservators in Germany developed an excellent tool for such an assessment.

SiLK Guidelines and Tool

It covers the range from general security measurements, theft, natural disasters, and climate to deterioration and even pests or violence. At that, it offers two major aspects: Questionnaires help you assess your current status and necessary actions. Information and a knowledge base may guide you towards the next steps.

On it’s website, the tool is described as follows:

They comprise introductory information, questionnaires and a knowledge base which together raise awareness for issues surrounding the protection and conservation of cultural property […]. The guidelines help staff evaluate the protection efforts of their own institution, and offer tips and possible solutions[…] Each topic has an associated introduction, questionnaire and knowledge base, with the questionnaire forming the core element. After answering all the questions, users obtain a “traffic light assessment”: if the minimum standard is not reached (“Red”) or if an ongoing threat exists (“Amber”), the assessment will include recommendations for action or mitigation measures.

Taken from [accessed 07 May 2024]

First things first – but which?

You know, what you’ve got to do. But where do you start? It may be difficult for you to decide which steps to take or how to prioritize them. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) recently shared a tool to apply the ABC Method for risk management for cultural institutions.

In a first research phase ICCROM (International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) and the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) developed and tested the approach. It resulted in two publications, available since 2016.

[It] holistically considers the different risks that can impact the value of cultural assets, from cumulative processes to rare events. Based on the use of specific tools, such as the 10 agents of deterioration, the 6 layers of enclosure, the ABC scales and the 5 stages of control, it enables comprehensive analysis of risks within the specific context of each institution, evaluation of risk magnitudes for prioritization, and the definition of cost-effective strategies to reduce or prevent risks.

From the ICOM article “Sharing is caring – Risk management in museums: a collaborative web-based tool for cultural heritage managers” [published 21 March 2024, accessed 8 April 2024]

ABC Risk Management System for cultural heritage

Screenshot from the ICOM article on the publication of the ABC System [last accessed 14 April 2024]

Four years ago, the Brazilian Casa de Oswaldo Cruz/Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) teamed up with ICCROM and the CCI to turn the written theory and guidelines into a web-based tool

After years of testing and development, it was now launched and is freely available for anyone. A structure of modules in accordance with ISO 31000 takes you through the stages of risk management to assess and prioritize the next steps.
A system download is available from

The More, the Merrier – Developing and Establishing Emergency Plans

Besides the afore mentioned tools and resources, we want to highlight two particular guidelines.

Cover of “The museum security toolkit” by Arts Council England

Originally published in 2003 and updated in 2016 “Security in Museums, Archives and Libraries. A Practical Guide” by the UK Collection’s Trust and Arts Council is a valuable resource for assessment, identification, response, monitoring and review. We’d also like to add the recently reviewed (May 2024) “Museum Security Toolkit”. As well as a large amount of specified resources dedicated to different security aspects in terms of tools as well as materials.

Additionally, we’d like to point you towards the US Department of Homeland Security. On the website of its Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) you may find several tools for emergency management. With an emphasis on prevention and preparation, they are available for study and download at

We can do it

While risks are seemingly looming everywhere, we can look ahead and around us to support each other in being as well prepared as possible. Many resources and alliances offer starting points, guidance, and assistance at any point. Additionally, museums can take steps to lower risks of damage to a certain degree. E.g. by adjusting their policies and emissions in response to climate change, involving the public or calling on governments as a strong voice.

Also, we invite you to join IATM at its annual conference “Museums in Danger” from 8-10 September 2024 in Finland. Here, we want to share stories of hope in times of multiple crises and exchange to benefit from the great network we already have.

We’ll share more on what to expect in September in the last article of this series next week.

Find the previous articles here and here.

Further resources

Comprehensive article from 1995 highlighting the same problem