University of Cambridge Museums

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Avoiding disaster

Recently a large batch of very tempting polar bear cupcakes appeared in the Scott Polar Research Institute kitchen on the tea trolley.

Avoiding disaster-1

They were intended for afternoon tea (served every day at 4pm in the Friend’s Room), but were already in the open on the trolley at lunchtime.  This caused much consternation among the staff – what if unscrupulous students ate them all before tea time?!  One of the staff present was Dr John Ash, an Institute Associate who is a risk scientist specialising in the geopolitically sensitive Arctic – so not surprisingly we ended up having a lively discussion about managing the risk of the cakes being eaten too soon.

Managing risks is a big part of what conservators do, and comes into every job, no matter how small.  For example, we have just de-installed our exhibition about Sir Ranulph Fiennes from The Polar Museum‘s Temporary Gallery, and moved our new life-size portrait of Ran to the Institute staircase:

Avoiding disaster-2When thinking about the risks of moving the portrait, we considered all the usual questions, like how to drill into the wall safely from a ladder on the landing, or positioning the portrait so it won’t get damaged by people brushing past it on the stairwell.  Here is our Exhibition officer Bryan drilling the holes for hanging the portrait – complete with safety goggles and cordless drill to avoid trip hazards:

Avoiding disaster-3But there is another more unusual risk in this story.  The new portrait (by Nigel Cox) is extremely lifelike and the eyes of Ran follow you round the room.  Several people have commented that they have been startled by it in the Temporary Gallery, thinking there was an actual person there.  Is this a risk for people using the staircase, especially after hours when the building is almost empty?  If you put a very realistic portrait on the stairs, could someone be startled and lose their footing?  It might not be very likely, but could have bad consequences if it did happen.  Many of the people using the stairs walk up and down regularly and so will get used to the picture.  But on the other hand we want to reduce this risk as much as possible.

The portrait is a recent loan from Anton Bowring and we would really like to have it on display in the Institute, so we have decided to go ahead and hang the picture on the stairs.  However, we have placed it so that people can only see it as they are walking up the stairs and not down.  That way if they do happen to be surprised by Ran on the stairwell, they can’t actually fall downstairs.  As often happens, this solution is a compromise between the small risk from being startled and the greater benefit of showing the portrait.

As well as assessing risks for particular tasks we have also assessed risks to the whole collection.  With help from Andor Vince and Deborah Walton of the University of Cambridge Museums, we have looked at all our objects and evaluated the risks to them in our building, in relation to their significance and value to the public.  This helps us to put hazards into perspective and work out the cost-benefit of making changes to reduce some risks.  It also helps us set priorities for conserving different parts of the collection, and plan our work with that in mind.  Having a good risk assessment for the collection is now considered best practice for museums, so Andor is running a series of masterclasses for museum professionals on risk management in collections care.  The next one will be in Glasgow on 21st May.

In case you are wondering, the cakes survived until tea and were delicious


One comment on “Avoiding disaster

  1. Pingback: Hanging is not too good for them… « The Polar Museum: news blog

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This entry was posted on March 27, 2015 by in Behind the Scenes, Culture, News and tagged , , , .
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