Risk assessment of Museum Amstelkring: application to an historic

Risk assessment of Museum Amstelkring: application to an historic building and its collections
and the consequences for preservation management
Agnes W Brokerhof*, Tessa Luger, Bart Ankersmit and Frank
Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN)
PO Box 76709
1070 KA Amsterdam
The Netherlands
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.icn.nl
Robert Schillemans, Peter Schoutens, Tine Muller and Judikje Kiers
Museum Amstelkring
Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40
1012 GE Amsterdam
The Netherlands
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.museumamstelkring.nl
Garnet Muething and Robert Waller
Canadian Museum of Nature
PO Box 3443
Station ‘D’
ON K1P 6P4
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.nature.ca
*Author to whom correspondence should be addressed
Museum Amstelkring is an historic building with a hidden church and mixed collections. It
attracts many visitors and the church is still in use. The museum is concerned that it can no longer
adequately balance preservation and presentation requirements. Instituut Collectie Nederland
(ICN) was asked to give integral advice on preventive conservation, visitor impact and collection
management, and to investigate whether building an extension to the museum might ease the
pressure on the main building and create better opportunities for the collection. A complete risk
assessment and other investigations were done to attach objective measures to perceived issues
and quantify risks so that their relative importance could be determined. This approach enables
museum management to prioritize and make reasoned decisions about improvements and
investments. For museum staff it draws attention to weaknesses in working procedures while for
conservation scientists it reveals issues that need further research.
preventive conservation, risk assessment, preservation management, collection management,
historic building, historic interior
Museum Amstelkring, Our Lord in the Attic, is one of the oldest museums in Amsterdam, The
Netherlands. It is a 17th century canal house with an interior that shows the splendour of the
Dutch Golden Age. Looking like an ordinary house from the outside, visitors are highly surprised
to find a complete church in the attic. This church – built at a time when Catholic services were
officially prohibited – is one of the few hidden Catholic churches to have survived in its original
state. The church building is the most important ‘object’ of the museum and is still used for
special masses, weddings and concerts. The moveable collections consists of some 10,000
objects, ranging from 17th century furniture to paintings, catholic artifacts, books and archives
(Figure 1). As such Museum
Figure 1. Exterior and interior of Museum Amstelkring, Our Lord in the Attic (photos: Gert-Jan
van Rooij)
Amstelkring keeps a building and a collection which tell the story of faith despite social
exclusion. It is a story of inventiveness and perseverance but also of society’s tolerance. In any
social or religious context, the story of acceptance of those who think differently forms the basis
for keeping and preserving collections. The mission statement of Museum Amstelkring describes
a task that consists of two conflicting parts: preservation of the 17th century canal house, the
hidden church and the moveable collections on the one hand and providing accessibility of the
monument for visitors on the other hand. There is a growing tension between these two. With
visitor numbers increasing from 42,000 in 1992 to 70,000 in 2003 museum management has the
feeling that it can no longer adequately balance preservation and presentation requirements.
Climate conditions in the building are not optimal while the services provided to visitors do not
meet current museum standards. Yet, a mere feeling is not a strong argument in discussions with
the museum board, city council and financers when looking for improvements. Therefore
museum management decided to substantiate the feeling and systematically study the needs for
improvement. The Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN) was asked to give integral advice on the
issues of preventive conservation, visitor impact, and collection management, and to investigate
whether building an extension to the museum would significantly ease the pressure on the main
building and create a better environment for the moveable collection.
Research methods
The primary concern of the museum staff is the issue of visitor impact. The most striking
example is the wear and tear of the original 17th century staircase which had to be closed off to
the public to stop further damage (Figure 2). To gain insight into visitor impact and to weigh this
risk against all the other risks that threaten building and collections, a complete risk assessment
was done. It was considered important to investigate whether visitor impact is indeed the biggest
threat to the building and the collections, or whether this is just a matter of perception. The
integral approach of the risk assessment has acted as a safeguard against focusing exclusively on
one issue. Another important feature of this risk assessment is that it dealt with moveable as well
as non-moveable collection units. The reason for this is the fact that the building and its historic
interior are considered to be an essential part of the museum. In addition to the risk assessment,
other research methods were used. A visitor appreciation survey revealed shortcomings in
services, desires to be met and bottlenecks to be dealt with. Interviews, tours of inspection,
temperature and relative humidity (RH) measurements, and survey of the documentation
provided insight into the entire context of the museum. The diversity of research methods called
for an interdisciplinary team, in which the input of the museum staff was indispensable. They
were able to provide important information on the value of the collections and their use. The
restoration architect contributed his knowledge about the building. The conservation scientists
provided knowledge about interaction of materials with their environment. All of that combined
enabled the consultants to translate the outcomes into collection management advice.
Risk assessment
The risk assessment was done in cooperation with the Canadian Museum of Nature using the
‘Cultural Property Risk Analysis Model’ developed by Waller (2003). All risks were divided into
ten generic risks: physical force, fire, water, criminals, pests, contaminants, light/ultraviolet
(UV), incorrect temperature, incorrect relative humidity and loss. These generic risks were
subdivided into three types each: type 1 being rare but catastrophic, type 2 being sporadic but
intermediate in severity, and type 3 being constant but mild. For each of the ten generic risks and
their three types, relevance was considered. Earthquakes and
Figure 2. Damage after 350 years wear and tear of the 17th century staircase
cyclones for instance (physical force type 1) do not occur in Amsterdam; water spillage during
maintenance of humidifiers (water type 3) is relevant. A list of 58 relevant specific risks was
compiled and for each of these a scenario of events causing damage was described.
Collection units and values
To facilitate calculation of risks the building and collections were divided into collection units to
assess. The moveable collection units were paintings, wood sculptures, furniture, textiles, nonmetal inorganic objects, books, metals, works on paper, ancillary/archives and composite objects.
The non-moveable collection units were windows, doors, walls, floors, ceilings, stairs, the organ
and architectural elements. For all collection units, relevant quanta were defined and the quanta
were counted or measured. As examples, objects were quantified by number, windows by square
metre of glass and stairs by number of steps. In a brainstorm session the values of the various
units and their quanta were discussed. All have cultural and artistic value, most have historical,
documentary and educational value. The historical value of the non-moveable units and the
objects still used during services and events, conflicted as usual with the functional value.
Considering loss of the various values due to different risks stimulated the debate about the
relative importance of values. Confrontation with loss led to the appreciation of possession. At
the start, the main value of the wooden floors was their function to carry people and thus their
structural integrity was of prime concern. One could see that wear and tear had caused
considerable loss of material in time and had required replacement of floor parts. This led to the
realization that it is not advisable to just stick to this view. At the same time, however, it raised
the question how original the floor actually is. Replaced floor parts tell their own story (Figure 3).
Assessing risks
For each combination of collection unit and specific risk, the magnitude of risk (MR) was
calculated. First the fraction susceptible (FS) within the unit and the maximum loss of value (LV)
of that fraction due to the specific risk were determined. Then the probability (P) of the scenario
taking place within a century was determined. Finally the extent (E) to which the specific risk
will affect the fraction susceptible and result in loss of value was determined. MR was then
calculated as the product of these four parameters. The MR-values of the specific risks for the
various units can be added within a generic risk to give the overall impression of the collection
loss over a century due to that generic risk. These are not precise figures, but they give a good
impression of relative magnitudes and enable internal comparison (Figure 4).
Figure 3. Wear and tear of floor and replaced parts telling their own story
Figure 4. Graph of MR values (z-axis) for all generic risks (x-axis) for each collection unit (yaxis)
The risk assessment showed that for both building and collection Fire type 1 and 2 calculated
based on equations of Harmathy et al. (1989), came out as the biggest risks. However, these
figures were based on general statistics, which show a high probability of fire spread in buildings
without a sprinkler system. The museum is aware of the fire risk, has strict procedures, and it was
felt that, for these reasons, these risks are actually lower than that calculated for a typical
‘educational’ building. This shows that, at least in The Netherlands, fire incident registration and
statistics in museums are lacking. Collecting better museum statistics would enable more accurate
assessment of type 1 and 2 risks. The initial cause for concern, wear and tear due to visitors
(Physical Force type 3), proved to be a high risk indeed when looked at more objectively,
especially for stairs and floors. Here the conflict between history and structural integrity was
most obvious. An important question is how much loss of material is considered acceptable and
in how much time. Museum management is faced with a dilemma: it wishes to let as many
visitors as possible experience the museum in all its facets, but at the same time, it wants to
preserve the building’s authenticity. For each solution to lower the risk of wear and tear of stairs
and floors, the consequences for functional, historical, ensemble and authenticity values has to be
weighed. This can be done by either weighing the value or calculating the loss due to intervention
options. Covering the wooden floors (with carpet or transparent boards) seriously intervenes with
authenticity, esthetical and ensemble value. Applying lacquer to the floor is a huge intervention
in material integrity. Another relatively high risk, both for the building and the collections, is
damage as a result of internal transport of objects and repair and maintenance activities in and
around the building (Physical Force type 2). Temporary exhibitions are an important instrument
to present more in-depth aspects of the collections and the stories it has to tell. Therefore, the
museum has an active exhibitions program, yet it has very little space for exhibitions and events.
Each exhibition or event requires moving of objects and causes damage to the building as a result
of installation. Storage rooms are overcrowded and hardly accessible, which also contributes to
the risk of physical damage. Addition of a new wing to the museum with space for temporary
exhibitions and sufficient room for packing, transit and storage, would significantly reduce all
these risks. This outcome could have been predicted, but the risk assessment made clear that
actually both building and moveable collections are fully exposed to these risks and that a
substantial reduction in risk can be achieved through a building project. The risk assessment also
dealt with the issues of climate conditions and light. As was expected, the risks of incoming
sunlight and UV radiation (LUV type 3) and incorrect RH and Temperature turned out to be
relatively high, even though a less strict regime was accepted than the currently used guidelines
in The Netherlands. These problems are not easily solved since many necessary measures would
involve the violation of the historical value of the building. A possible solution would be to move
the most fragile objects out of the main building to an extension, where better conditions can be
created. Given that heating of the museum in winter requires humidification with portable
equipment, which involves a risk of water spillage and condensation on cold walls, it is worth
considering accepting a lower average winter temperature at the expense of visitor comfort. As
climate control systems cannot be installed in the building the possibility of forced ventilation
under the roof will be looked into. The issues of microclimates in show cases and certain parts of
the building, and the effect of large groups of visitors on temperature and RH still need further
investigation. Two risks that turned out to be relatively high are connected with the level of
internal organization and collection management. Pilfering by employees (Criminals type 3),
came out as a much higher risk than had been anticipated. It is high not because the staff are
considered so inclined, but because the ‘opportunity that creates the thief’ is present. The good
atmosphere with much mutual trust goes hand in hand with a lack of internal control. This is
recognized and confirmed by staff, which facilitates setting up stricter procedures without
creating an unpleasant working environment. Loss of written and unwritten information about
collection and building, owing to loss of documentation, memory-loss or change of personnel,
scored high (Loss type 1–3). Although it is common practice to record historical data and
conservation treatments of the objects this has not been the case for the building. These two risks
could easily be mitigated in the present situation by introducing stricter procedures for handling
objects and keeping records of all the work that is being done on the building. Interviewing
maintenance staff and recording their knowledge may reveal valuable information about the
building and its restoration history.
Improvement options
The advice and recommendations that were put forward in the final report, based on the risk
assessment, interviews, inspections and environmental monitoring, could be divided into (1)
improvements that can be made in the present situation, (2) improvements that can be realized by
building an extension to the museum and (3) issues that need further investigation or research.
The first type of improvements is being incorporated in the policy plan and work plans for the
near and longer future. Because several of them hardly require financial investments, they can
easily be implemented. Examples are designing procedures for access to storage areas, handling
objects and keeping records of building maintenance. Encouraged by the awareness that the
damage to the building caused by installing exhibitions is rather extensive, money was spent on a
new system of clamp-fit moveable frames to attach small display cases, information boards and
lighting systems. This has reduced the need for drilling holes in walls and ceiling (Figure 5). The
second type of improvement is being used to found the feasibility study for the extension plans.
For example, the options for improving the environmental conditions in the historic building are
limited, but they can be realized in a new building. The risks to susceptible objects on display due
to incorrect RH, temperature and lighting can thus be lowered. Meanwhile extra exhibition space
is created which lowers the risk of damage to the building each time temporary exhibitions are
being installed while the character of the 17th century interior is kept intact while temporary
activities take place. Extra storage space and adequate access can be realized reducing the
physical force type 2 risks. Also better visitor services can be offered with front desk, proper
cloakroom, cafe, toilets and the museum shop, which means a big improvement compared with
the heavily congested reception area of the historic building. An auditorium and an education
area ease the pressure that presentations, events and the school tours put on the church. A second,
hypothetical risk assessment for the new situation should be done to make a comparative risk–
cost–benefit analysis for the extension. Several issues need further investigation. For example,
apart from the obvious physical damage, it was difficult to link other risks to the number of
visitors. More detailed monitoring of the climate inside the building, related to both outside
climate, visitor numbers and airflow through the rooms has to be carried out before the complex
interactions can be modelled and understood. In some instances the data needed to assess risks
properly just is not available. The interaction of various materials and objects with the specific
risks needs further research. Sometimes the uncertainty in estimated risks is still very large and
further research is required to narrow the uncertainty and enable a better quantitative assessment.
Side effects of the risk assessment
An important step in the process of consciousness-raising proved to be the attribution of values to
building and collection units and the fact that they can be attributed from the perspective of the
museum, of the visitor, of the city and of the community at large. The discussions revealed the
full value of objects as the sum of the values from individual perspectives. Thinking about loss of
value in the risk assessment opens one’s eyes to the relative importance of the different values.
Interestingly, the building gained overall value as a result of making the various values explicit!
Figure 5. Clamp-fit frames for temporary displays put an end to drilling holes in walls and
ceilings (design: Theo Tienhoven)
Carrying out the risk assessment also increased awareness of the current condition of building
and collections. In some instances the condition of objects was actually better then expected after
more than 300 years in use and on subsequent display. In other instances weak spots in objects
and building were revealed. Even though results from the past are no guarantee for the future, the
current condition of collection units provided much information for the risk assessment
parameters ‘probability’ and ‘extent’, while observed damage served as a guide in the
determination of ‘fraction susceptible’ and ‘loss of value’. Describing risk scenarios focused
attention on handling of building and collection units. The risk assessment also increased the
awareness of the importance of documentation in both word and image. Documentation of
information lays down the basic values. The risk assessment actually served as an instrument to
internalize the collective knowledge about the building and the collections. As such it raised the
level of professionalism of museum staff. Finally, doing the risk assessment and being so
intensely occupied with collecting all available data to feed into the model’s equations, proved to
be a team-building experience. Even though it is a time-consuming exercise that requires much
commitment from everyone involved, it is highly rewarding. Being the first museum in The
Netherlands to follow the systematic approach of the risk assessment and including the building
as a full part of the museum collection attracts attention in the Dutch museum world. It shows
how seriously a medium-sized museum deals with its problems and how efficiently it can do that.
The integral approach to the problems of Museum Amstelkring has helped to view all the
problems in connection with each other. It has made clear which improvements can be made to
the present situation in the short-, mid- and longterm and these will be incorporated in the work
plans and adjusted procedures. It has also revealed which problems require a long-term strategy.
The risk assessment has focused attention on all the possible risks in their integral context.
Simple awareness of risks is, in itself, the beginning of reduction. The assessment has added
insight into the relative magnitude of the various risks, thus enabling prioritizing actions for
improvement. It has made it possible to identify the risks that are linked to visitor impact and the
ones that are not. Comparison of these risks places visitor impact on the building and the
collections in the proper perspective. Thus the instinctive concerns have become more objective.
A complete assessment forces one to take the less obvious risks into account and to see possible
relationships between risks and the combined influences of their various causes. Defining values
of non-moveable collection units and thinking about the loss of value due to, for example, a
scratch on a door was a very interesting exercise. Including the building in the assessment has led
to a more conscious appreciation of the building. Building an extension to the museum could
prove to reduce more than only the visitor related risks. A hypothetical risk assessment for the
situation after building the extension provides semi-quantitative arguments in the negotiations
with financers and decision-makers. Altogether the risk assessment of Museum Amstelkring
turned out to be an important tool for both consultants and museum staff. The assessment has
made clear where scientific knowledge is needed to enable proper calculation of risks rather than
best guesses. It points out where further research is needed, such as into susceptibility of
materials and dose–effect relations, especially in the area of temperature and relative humidity.
Also the impact of visitors on the indoor environment needs more study. Overall, both Museum
Amstelkring and ICN feel that by taking one step back from the details and looking at the bigger
picture, they have taken a large step forward in preventive conservation and collection
We thank all those involved in the risk assessment, especially Frank Ligterink and Birgit
Reissland (ICN), Annemiek van Soestbergen, Thijs Boers and Pjotter van Leeuwen (Museum
Amstelkring) and Frederik Franken (Bureau voor Bouwhistorisch onderzoek en Restauratie).
Harmathy, T Z et al. 1989, ‘A decision logic for trading between fire safety measures’,
Fire and Materials 14, 1–10.
Waller, R R, 2003, Cultural Property Risk Analysis Model: Development and Application to
Preventive Conservation at the Canadian Museum of Nature, Acta Universitatis
Gothoburgensis, Göteborg, Sweden.
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