New sensor network protecting art in NY museum

Jun 09, 2011 By JIM FITZGERALD , Associated Press
In this photo provided by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Paolo Dionisi Vici, associate research scientist in the Department of Scientific Research at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, left, and Hendrik Hamann, Research Manager at IBM, discuss a new environmental sensor system that will be deployed at the Clositers Museum in New York, Tuesday, June 7, 2011. Hamann holds an example of one of the sensors that will monitor the climate in the museum and help preserve its walls. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

(AP) -- It will take a good eye to spot them, but dozens of tiny, very modern works of art have been installed near the 15th-century unicorn tapestries and other medieval masterpieces at a New York City museum.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is announcing Thursday that a network of wireless environmental sensors designed to prevent damage to the collection is being tested at its Cloisters branch.

The IBM sensors - each housed with a radio and a in a case about the size of a pack of cigarettes - can measure temperature, humidity, , light levels, contaminants and more. They are inexpensive and run on low power, and several can be positioned in a room, scientists said Wednesday.

The information collected goes into a three-dimensional "climate map" that can be accessed on a computer, and the data can then be analyzed to adjust the climate, spot trends and even make predictions.

"Nobody in the world at this moment has this kind of information, not at this level of detail," said Paolo Dionosi Vici, associate research scientist at the Metropolitan. "It's the analytics that will keep us one step ahead technologically."

The network now covers about a third of the Cloisters, which houses 3,000 medieval works in several ancient buildings that were disassembled in Europe and rebuilt in northern Manhattan. The Met expects to expand the network throughout the Cloisters and eventually to the main museum on Fifth Avenue.

The climate at museums like the Cloisters is already tightly controlled, with especially fragile items kept in sealed cases. Curators don't have to worry about the ravages that might happen to a fresco in an open Italian church, for example.

But the artwork is sensitive to small .

"A window in a museum, in summer, that can be a hot spot," Vici said. "And the light from the window on the floor can increase the temperature of the floor. Until now, that is a variation we might not know about because we were not taking so many measurements."

Another factor that can influence the climate in a museum is the number of visitors - and where the visitors have been.

"If it's raining outside the Cloisters and the tourists that come in are wet, that has an effect," Vici said.

The idea is to keep the effects from causing any damage, even slow damage, to the art.

"Whenever we have to act on an object to repair it, it's a loss of memory of what it was in the past," Vici said. "Restoration can be very useful but if we can prevent (deterioration), it's better."

Hendrik Hamann, an IBM research manager working on the project, said the 100-year-old company has had a long relationship with the Met and found the art world a good test for its sensor technology, which can also be used in ordinary buildings to measure energy efficiency and other details.

"The conservation of art and our cultural heritage is obviously one of the grand challenges of our time," Hamann said.

Vici and Hamann both said the sensors - which they called low-power motes - could eventually be adapted to measure how a painting on wood, for example, reacts to minor climate fluctuations.

"We'd like to be able to monitor how much the wood swells, even a tiny amount," said Vici, who said he worked on the preservation of the Mona Lisa.

Hamann said that as data pours in, trends will appear, "and we can use those trends to understand what will happen in the future."

"We will know that certain things happen in the museum environment on certain days," he said. Those trends can then be correlated with information about the best way to protect a tapestry or a wooden statue, for example.

Hamann said the Cloisters was chosen for the test because "It is a historic building. It has high ceilings. It has famous glass windows. It has tapestries, wood paintings, stonework, it has indoors and outdoors sections. It's very interesting from a monitoring perspective."

The Cloisters had temperature and humidity monitors but lacked the analytic capabilities of the new program, he said.

About 100 of the new sensors have been spread through seven adjacent rooms, including the one housing the priceless tapestries that portray a unicorn hunt. They are inconspicuous, but not hidden entirely.

"If you know where the motes are you can see them," Hamann said.

But Vici said, "The visual impact of the sensors is so small compared to the quality of the information. ... For every object in the room we can know in real time how the climate evolves in that particular point."

Explore further: Faster computation of electromagnetic interference on an electronic circuit board

not rated yet
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Safe journey for works of art

Dec 04, 2009

Valuable paintings travel long distances when they are shipped from one place to another. To minimize damage, they are packed in special picture cases. In future, these will be equipped with sensors to detect ...

Study: New Guinea art older than thought

Oct 12, 2005

When San Francisco's de Young Museum reopens Saturday, it will debut the world's largest collection of New Guinea art -- some pieces 100 generations old.

Recommended for you

A smart prosthetic knee with in-vivo diagnoses

Apr 22, 2014

The task was to develop intelligent prosthetic joints that, via sensors, are capable of detecting early failure long before a patient suffers. EPFL researchers have taken up the challenge.

Old tires become material for new and improved roads

Apr 22, 2014

(Phys.org) —Americans generate nearly 300 million scrap tires every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Historically, these worn tires often end up in landfills or, when illegally ...

Students take clot-buster for a spin

Apr 21, 2014

(Phys.org) —In the hands of some Rice University senior engineering students, a fishing rod is more than what it seems. For them, it's a way to help destroy blood clots that threaten lives.

User comments : 0

More news stories

Jacket works like a mobile phone

A fire is raging in a large building and the fire leader is sending a message to all firefighters at the scene. But they don't need a mobile phone – they simply check their jacket sleeves and read the message ...

Is nuclear power the only way to avoid geoengineering?

"I think one can argue that if we were to follow a strong nuclear energy pathway—as well as doing everything else that we can—then we can solve the climate problem without doing geoengineering." So says Tom Wigley, one ...

Classifying sequence variants in human disease

Sequencing an entire human genome is faster and cheaper than ever before, leading to an explosion of studies comparing the genomes of people with and without a given disease. Often clinicians and researchers studying genetic ...