Open house – using risk management to open historic houses to the public

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Open house – using risk management to open historic houses to the public

Historic houses play an important role in the UK’s tourism economy. As many of them begin to open up their doors to visitors once again, Chris Bentley (pictured), head of art & specie, UK & Lloyd’s at AXA XL, explains how risk assessments can help to manage the challenges faced by owners and the role that insurance can play in transferring the risk.

It’s the quintessentially British day out; a trip to a historic house, perhaps a stroll around the gardens, and a nice cup of tea in the café afterwards. As well as giving visitors a glimpse into a period of history or way of life, historic houses are also often used as wedding venues or to hold events like concerts, exhibitions, fêtes and fayres. They also are used as sets for films and television shows, notably for the costume dramas for which the UK is renowned, but also for blockbuster movies like the Harry Potter series, and international hit shows such as Game of Thrones.

As we begin to emerge from the worst grips of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions are lifted, it’s expected that visitor numbers to historic houses and their grounds across the UK will increase dramatically in 2022.

While the majority of historic houses across the UK are open to the public to some degree or another, it’s important to remember that many are also still private homes. Their owners face several risks, some obvious and some less so, when opening their doors to the public. Assessing, managing, mitigating and transferring these risks, therefore, becomes an important part in enabling visitors to have access to these valuable and fascinating assets.

Opening the doors

When the owners of historic houses decide to open up to public access, there are many risk considerations to be taken into account and decisions that need to be taken. Perhaps the most important of these is whether to have a ‘free-flow’ system for visitors, whether to regulate visitor traffic in small groups, or whether to allow a mixture of both.

Of course, one of the main reasons visitors flock to visit historic houses is to view the collections of artworks, artefacts and furniture within them. Here, owners must strike a balance between enabling visitors to view these treasures while protecting them from potential damage.

It’s recommended that vulnerable items are kept 1.5 metres or more behind the guide ropes put in place to signal the route around the house. Valuable items should, where possible, be housed in display cases or secured – and maybe even fitted with alarms.

To reduce the risk of theft, many historic houses request that visitors deposit large bags into cloakrooms. And it’s recommended that checks on security systems and intruder alarms are run at the end of each day to verify that the lenses of alarm sensors have not been obscured, for example.

Staffing

Often national or local societies or clubs will organise group visits to historic houses. The ideal size of such groups is between 12 and 16 people. Any larger and it’s recommended that groups are split and visits staggered. While a tour leader guides visitors and offers information, a “sweeper” should also accompany groups – at the back – to keep the group together. For fire safety reasons, doors between rooms cannot be locked and unlocked in rotation, so the sweeper’s role is essential. Ideally, a third staff member would also be on hand should a visitor become unwell or require other attention.

Employee duties must be risk assessed – and documented if five or more people are employed. After a risk assessment, it may be deemed that employees require extra or specialist training, depending on the individual situation. Employees should be provided with equipment such as mobile panic buttons, radios or mobile phones with which they can summon assistance should an incident occur.

The handling of cash is another potential risk area. Any employees that will have to handle cash should be trained and protected and cash should regularly be taken off-site to reduce theft risk.

Other perils

Risk assessments for historic houses will cover some expected topics; fire is one of these. A full fire risk assessment must be carried out before houses can open to the public, and fire inception risks managed, detection systems in place, and a safe protocol for managing the exit of visitors and employees in the event of a fire put in place – and practised, among other measures.

Because of their nature, some areas of historic houses might be more vulnerable to structural damage. For example, potentially weaker structures, such as cantilever staircases or suspended floors, should be subject to a report by a structural engineer.

The risk of damage to structures can be managed in part by preventing overcrowding and staggering footfall by putting in place timed entry slots, for example. Owners also need to consider risks like excessive vibration caused by visitors walking through corridors or rooms.

These types of considerations should also be factored in when planning the visitor route; where might visitors be likely to dwell and congregate? Are there pinch points? Are there risks associated with visitors going up – or down – levels?

There are other risks too, some of which might be less obvious. Historically, many of these houses would have been shut up for prolonged periods of time and their contents only displayed when the house was occupied during certain seasons. When houses are opened up to public view, potential damage may be caused to contents by light or humidity, for example. Museums have standards about light and humidity levels and owners should seek specialist advice about how to protect artworks and artefacts that might be exposed to these changing atmospheric conditions.

Weddings

These days historic houses are also a popular choice for wedding venues as well as for commercial events. At the current time, COVID restrictions on the numbers of people allowed to attend gatherings have been relaxed, and we can expect to see a big uptick in the numbers of weddings and other commercial events held in historic houses.

Before such events can take place there are several risk management and mitigation measures that owners should consider. As with regular visits, it’s important that fragile structures or areas are protected – and guest numbers should be limited or controlled to help with this effort. Fire evacuation procedures are of course key too.

Opening up to weddings and other events may mean clients bringing in outside contractors for catering, for example. It’s a wise move for owners to build up a trusted group of contractors from which clients can choose; this also enables both contractors and owners to get a sense of how one another works. Contractors should have previous experience of working in historic buildings – and references to back this up – as well as public liability coverage with limits commensurate with the property value at risk. 

It’s also worth requiring commercial circular tables to be lifted, not rolled, on and off the premises, and equipment should have rubber-tipped feet or be placed on protective boards.

Having food and drink on the premises also brings with it risks. To reduce the risk of damage, food and drink should only be consumed within designated areas. Period furniture should be protected to reduce the risk of wine and food stains, for example, or damage from hot food. It’s also important to consider the risk of flying Champagne corks and set aside a designated area where sparkling wines can be opened to minimise the risk of damage to paintings or artefacts. Of course, commercial kitchens should be inspected annually and food preparation and handling must comply with food safety standards.

Flowers and confetti can also cause damage to surfaces and flooring. Owners of historic houses should ensure that flower arrangements are stable and not placed on historic surfaces and that water spillage risk is minimised, among other precautions.

Candles and naked flames should also be closely monitored, smoking forbidden inside – as per the law – and open fires only lit when chimneys are regularly swept. Fire exits should be clearly identifiable and unblocked.

All of this might appear daunting; there is a whole host of considerations for the owners of historic houses to take into account. Working with an experienced insurer will help owners navigate many of these risks and put in place measures to enable visitors to come to historic houses safely and securely.

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