Don't let museum risks catch you by surprise

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You took a lot of risks to get your museum to where you are today. In fact, your museum probably wouldn't exist if you hadn't taken some of those risks. But now that your facility is more established, the risks are more significant - there is just so much more to lose! Risks can be managed however. Whether your museum is small or large, you have the responsibility to your employees, your volunteers, to your clients and to yourself to invest in risk management planning.

Many only think about buying insurance when they think about risk management (RM). Many don't give much thought of other ways they can protect their museum from the many risks that they face. Some risks are random and unpredictable (weather and acts of nature). Others are more predictable and can be planned for - like costs of supplies, overhead, new hires and equipment replacement. There are also the other kinds of events that can - and do - happen almost anytime; they can disrupt your operations, take a chunk out of your reserves, kill your bank account and cripple or destroy your museum.

Trying to get your arms around all risks and trying to completely eliminate them is unrealistic; it can be very expensive and burdensome. On the other hand, not paying enough attention to risks can “catch you by surprise” and leave you unprotected. It makes sense to be cautious. The big challenge in RM is to find the proper balance between peace of mind, and serving your mission.

Management is the key

For most museums - YOU have the responsibility of managing risk. Your role as a leader is to help everyone generally understand risk and to make sure policies are in place to manage them. Your can create a culture of RM by:

  • Educating everyone on how much risk is acceptable and that risk is part of every job
  • Setting expectations for plans to deal with and reduce risk
  • Making sure that everyone understands that risk is everyone's responsibility
  • Holding everyone accountable

Simply stated, risk management is a discipline for dealing with uncertainty. It provides you with an approach to recognize and confront the threats you face. Risk can be very complicated – but it doesn't have to be. Every museum can start with a simple, easy to follow plan that can manage and lessen risk. If needed, you can expand from there.

It is well worth the time!

Including risk management in your museum activities is well worth the time:

The threat of a lawsuits is increasing

Many museums have never faced a lawsuit, but those that have know that it can be costly and time consuming even defending unfounded allegations. Good RM can reduce these costs or perhaps help you to avoid a lawsuit altogether.

The risk of client harm

Your mission is to serve people, not hurt them. Responsibility for harm to a client, however unintentional, undermines and jeopardizes your museum.

For your own safety and security

Sound RM will help create a sense of confidence and safety about your operation.

Avoiding problems

Failing to manage your risks can cause a wide variety of problems including:

  • Injuries to employees, volunteers or the public
  • Financial loss
  • Loss of your good name / reputation
  • Increased insurance premiums -

    Insurance is affected by market conditions and the number of claims you make and the risk you pose to the carrier. Making fewer claims and having procedures in place to manage your risk may lead to lower premiums.

Getting started

Risk management goes beyond just identifying risk; it is about learning to weigh your risks and making decisions about which risks deserve immediate attention. You can do this when you:

A. Establish a framework.

Ask, "What am I trying to accomplish by integrating RM into our operations?" Some goals might include reducing injuries, avoiding costly claims, or reducing insurance premiums.

B. Recognize and pinpoint risk (risk identification).

There are many ways to undertake risk identification; the key is using a system that allows you to identify major risks facing your museum. It is important to make a list and examine every risk, no matter how small; they could develop into something more serious over time.

C. Identify, evaluate and prioritize risk (risk assessment).

The third step, a Risk Assessment, is a great way to take the risks you're facing and put them in perspective. Of course, just making a list of all possible risks is not enough. It is easy to quickly become overwhelmed. Not all risks are created equal. RM is not just about identifying risk; it is about learning to weigh various risks and making decisions about which risks deserve immediate attention. In doing this you will often find that your museum's vulnerability to a risk is often a function of financial impact. What are the odds that a particular risk will materialize – and – how much is it likely to cost? How much does your museum stand to lose as a result? This helps quantify which risks are worth worrying about and which are not.

Using a risk matrix in your risk assessment

A risk matrix is a valuable tool to help determine both the likelihood and the consequences of any particular risk. It helps you focus your attention on those issues that have higher consequences. In such a matrix, the likelihood is rated from almost certain to unlikely and the consequences are rated from minimal to catastrophic. A risk that is almost certain to occur but has few serious consequences needs little attention. This frees you to identify and mitigate risks that may be less certain but have great consequences.

Prioritize your list

Once you've assessed your risks, you can begin to take steps to control them – giving priority to those with the greatest likelihood and/or biggest potential impact.


D. Select appropriate risk management strategies and implement your plan.

There are four basic RM techniques that can be used individually or in combination to address virtually every risk you face:

  1. Avoid it

    Whenever you can't offer a program with a high degree of safety, you should choose avoidance as a RM technique. Don't offer programs or services that pose too great a risk. In some cases avoidance is the best technique because many museums don';t have the financial resources required to fund the training, supervision, or other safety measures. Always ask, "Is there something we could do to provide this service safely?" If the answer is "yes," risk modification (#2 - next) may be more practical.

  2. Change it or Modification

    Modification is simply changing an activity or service to make it safer. Policies and procedures are examples of risk modification. An example is a museum concerned about the risk of using unsafe drivers for program field trips, they might add Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) record checks to its screening process.

  3. Take it on yourself / Retention

    A museum may decide that other available techniques above aren't suitable and it will retain the risk of harm or loss. For example, when a museum purchases liability insurance and elects a $1,000 deductible, it's retaining risk. Where organizations get into trouble is when risk is retained unintentionally, such as within the exclusions of their insurance policy.

  4. Share it

    Risk sharing involves sharing risk with another through a contract. [Insurance is an example that shares the financial impact of risks

E. Monitor and update the risk management program.

Your museum is a dynamic one that constantly faces new challenges and opportunities. RM techniques and plans should be reviewed periodically to make certain that they remain the most appropriate strategy for your needs and circumstances.

Developing your risk management plan

Once you've gone through the steps of identifying and evaluating your risks, it will probably become apparent that you'll need to put together a RM plan to manage them in an organized fashion. As mentioned, the first step in developing a plan is to determine why you're creating your RM program. Your goal may be to reduce the cost of insurance or to reduce the number of work-related injuries. By determining your intention before initiating RM planning, you can evaluate the results to determine the effectiveness.

A risk management plan generally will cover a number of different categories oftentimes including:

    1. Risk Assessment
    2. Management Expectations & RM Training
    3. Board & Management Liability
    4. Hiring & Volunteer Policies
    5. Staff, Participant & Visitor Safety
    6. Program Development
    7. Insurance
    8. Property & Facilities
    9. Workers' Compensation
    10. Crisis & Emergency Planning
    11. Auto Exposures
    12. Records Management & Disaster Recovery
    13. Staffing (includes succession planning)
    14. Social Media
    15. Creating a Culture of Risk Management
    16. Monitoring & updating of RM program

Analyzing the above categories is a matter of dissecting each and asking:

  1. What can go wrong?
  2. What are you concerned about?
  3. What will we do to prevent harm from occurring?
  4. What will you do to lessen the worry?
  5. How will you finance?

Your answers to each will provide you with a direction for necessary action.


The ultimate goal for your museum regarding risk is to create a culture where risk is routinely examined and managed simply as part of the organization's process. Risk management starts at the highest levels of a museum. By operating in a transparent and ethical manner a lot of risks are mitigated by promoting a sense of accountability.

We can't know what lies ahead, but we do want to be prepared to respond to future events effectively and gracefully. Make a conscious effort to identify & manage your exposures. ASK:

  • Can you avoid or eliminate the risk?
  • If not, can you control or mitigate the risk?
  • Can you transfer the responsibility of finance?

Reckless leaders take reckless risks; prudent leaders take calculated risks. Risk management is the “calculator.”


The next step is to involve others in your efforts. Remember that an effective risk management program can never be the responsibility of one individual. If you've already engaged a group, task force, or committee in identifying risks and strategies, you're well on your way to implementing a risk management program. 

Keep in mind that many effective strategies for managing risk in a museum may not require any additional expenses. Time, attention, and resolve may be all that's needed to increase the safety of vital assets. Give your team a deadline, a date by which you plan to have made significant progress in achieving your risk management goals. Review your progress frequently and set new goals as you achieve the existing ones.

As we have discussed, risk management need not be a complex and bewildering array of technical terms, actuarial tables, or probability statistics. On the contrary, risk management is, in large part, the application of healthy doses of common sense and sound planning.

Remember that the simpler the risk management strategy is, the more likely it is that it will be applied. Yes, there may be items that are not considered in the first iteration of the plan, but at the outset it is more important that your program be comprehensible rather that comprehensive. As you continue to develop and refine your plan, what now seems new and strange will become second nature.

As time passes, your plan should become more inclusive as you address more risks in order of their priority. As stated at the beginning of this article, risk management is a process not a task, therefore it is important to constantly review what you are doing, celebrate your triumphs, and analyze the reasons behind any setbacks.

Make sure your museum is property covered, and

ask your agent about Markel Museum Insurance today!

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