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The Art of Tracking Masterpieces

Several museums in Rotterdam are using RFID to reduce the cost of tracing the movements of works by Rembrandt, Renoir, Picasso and other masters.
Jun 17, 2002June 17, 2002 - You'd think that tracking paintings by Van Gogh would be easy. After all, how many still lifes with potatoes did Van Gogh paint? Well, five actually. And keeping track of them can be more of a headache than you'd think. Museums typically show only a small portion of their permanent collections. The rest of the items are kept in storage.


Affixing an RFID label
When a work is needed for a special exhibition, or is requested by another museum for a show, the painting, sketch or sculpture has to be located and identified. That's labor-intensive work. Even if the item can be located quickly in a large storage room, in order to be identified, it has to be removed from its protective packaging and handled carefully. Museums typically use bar codes to identify works. But bar codes require line of site, so the object still has to be removed from its packaging and maneuvered so that the label can be scanned. There is always the danger that the item could be dropped. And the wear and tear from handling an item that is several hundred years old could be considerable.

The Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum and several others in the Netherlands have been conducting pilots using radio frequency identification tags on works of art. The studies looked at how effective RFID would be in identifying artworks in storage, tracking them as they move from one museum to another, and protecting them from theft andr copying. Based on the results, several of the museums plan to tag works by Rembrandt, Renoir and Picasso.

The museums began the pilots with a local company called Helicon Conservation Support, a museum services company that developed a "Talking-Tag" system to identify and record the movements of paintings and other works. The system consists of the tags, handheld and desktop readers from Omron and software that links the readers to existing databases.

The Talking Tags are business card-sized labels, which contain Philips Semiconductors' I-CODE integrated circuit. The chips can store 384 bits of information. There are 44 digital positions that can be assigned. So for instance,the first 12 positions could be assigned to indicate a unique serial number.

Helicon worked witht the museums to develop codes for the other positions. A "B" might mean "stable condition -- needs restoration." A code C might mean "unstable condition -- needs immediate restoration." Other codes could indicate special storage conditions needed by the work or the priority that should be given to evacuating the work in case of calamity.

Since the information is stored on the tag, it is available even when the work is in transit and staff don't have access to the museum database. Moreover, the tags can be read and written to using high-frequency radio waves, so information can be added or updated on the fly.

Helicon ran several pilots. Each museum was responsible for examining at least one implementation issue.

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