42nd Annual Meeting – Opening Session, 29 May, "Quantifying cost effectiveness of risk treatment options (aka preventive conservation)" by Stefan Michalski and Irene F. Karsten

Preventive conservation was the topic of much discussion at this year’s annual meeting, from how to teach it to what exactly it entails. In this talk, Stefan Michalski discussed the quantification of preventive conservation.
He began by reminding us that we base our ideas of preventive conservation on the “proofed fluctuation” argument: if fluctuation in the past has not caused significant damage, then similar future fluctuations will not either. He also defined preventive conservation. First, we assess risks. Then, we ‘treat’ risks;  this second part is Preventive Conservation. We have to remember that ‘treat’ has a different meaning in this context than in remedial conservation, and despite being a loaded word, accurately describes what we do. These definitions are simultaneously straightforward and complicated; we struggle with them and yet we need them for our daily work.
Michalski continued by defining the four steps to successful preventive conservation:
1. Identify Options
2. Analyze
3. Evaluate
4. Implement
Steps 2-3 require quantification, and it’s vital that this quantification is transparent and well-documented. This is where Michalski and Karsten’s research comes in. They assessed the financial risk of every preventive option available for a variety of institutions, including an archive and a historic house.
In order to quantify reduction in risk, calculations were made using the following formulas:

  • Option effectiveness = size of risk reduction = size of original risk – size of reduced risk
  • Risk reduction / cost = [% of collection saved / $ spent] /year

I had never encountered this calculation before, or considered this as a feasible method of determining cost-effectiveness and ranking options, and I don’t think I’m alone in the conservation field in this. I wish that this had been covered by one of my graduate courses, because while it may seem obvious in some ways, the explanation was exceptionally helpful, and is something that I will take to my professional practice.
The numbers produced graphs on a logarithmic scale, in terms of percent saved per dollar. By evaluating options on this scale, it was possible to see how cost-effective various options are. What was highlighted with this calculation is that the cost effectiveness of an action is a function of the magnitude of risk – the bigger the risk, the better the return on percentage saved. This is in line with the economic principle of ‘economies of scale‘. What Michalski noted was that it is important to remember that the scale referred to is internal, not external, which means that small museums can be just as cost-effective as larger museums.
I loved this talk, and I felt like I learned a huge amount about quantification of risk. ‘Risk assessment’ is a term that we are all familiar with; to be able to go more in-depth is a skill, and Stefan Michalski did an excellent job of teaching that skill. His results are hugely applicable to museums and institutions of all sizes, and we should all learn and apply this method to aid in our decision-making for preventive conservation.