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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.
At the Boijmans Van Beuningen, a pilot was done to see how the Talking Tags could track items within the museum. One hundred and seventy objects of ancient art were tagged and details recorded on the tag.

Scanning a fossil
In the past, when an item needed to be moved from storage to, say, the conservation area for some restoration work, staff would have to find the item in storage and open the packaging to identify the item. They then had to log in to the museum's database, search for the item and manual update the location information. The process takes from three to six minutes.

With the new system, the item can be located and positively identified without opening any packaging. When the item is ready to be moved, the location is typed into the software interface, and the item is placed on a block reader attached to a PC. The tag is read and the museum's database is updated instantly.

The museum is planning to install a gate reader in the conservation area, so the database will be updated automatically when a tagged item is brought through the doorway. When removing dozens of items for a show, the system can quickly handle site registration – that is, registering the new location of the item – by rescanning the storeroom. That creates a file of what's still in storage. Workers use a handheld reader to scan items in the exhibition area or showcases, and then the two files are reconciled, so the database knows exactly where each work of art is at any moment in time.

"Digital site registration turns out to be hugely more effective than the traditional methods of registration," says Marguerite Stuart, manager of Talking Tags for Helicon. "Apart from the greater accuracy it provides, the system also speeds up the process. Mistakes are reduced to a minimum. Even after a showcase is closed it is possible to register the objects without the need to re-open the showcase or touch the objects."

Another pilot at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen focused on tracking the movements of works of art as they were transferred between museums. Objects were tagged and the information about the item was recorded on the chip. The information was matched with the museums records related to that item in a database.

The museum used handheld readers to track the items as they were shipped to Porto for 'The Cultural Capital of the Year 2001' celebration. Helicon and the museum planned every step of the journey and then established procedures for scanning the tags when they were loaded onto trucks, taken off the trucks, moved into a new building and so on.

Again, the tags greatly reduced the time and effort it took to record the movements of the items, and reduced the number of times they had to be handled by the museum staff.

"We had the idea to register our collection digitally a long time ago," says Paul Teunissen, the collection registrar at the Rotterdam Museum and project leader for implementing the system. "We made a careful inventory of our requirements and ideas, before looking for a suitable solution. We selected the Talking Tag system because it offers more possibilities than a system using bar codes."

In November 2001, the museum began attaching tags to some 15,000 drawings in its collection,. When all drawings have been tagged, the next step will be to register the rest of its collection of some 130,000 pieces of art. All the information is stored in a PC-based database, so it can be easily linked to the Internet. Or the information on the tags could be used to create systems for providing background on the artworks for visitors to the museum.

"Different works of art can also be displayed quickly alongside each other on the computer screen, which will help make a selection for an exhibition easier" says Teunissen. "We are taking things one step at a time, but the possibilities are tremendous".

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