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Adler Planetarium Automates Condition Tracking for Sensitive Astronomical Instruments

The museum is employing a wireless solution using Wi-Fi and RFID to capture temperature and humidity data around its hundreds of artifacts and manuscripts, including writings penned by Galileo.
By Claire Swedberg
May 20, 2019

Chicago's Adler Planetarium is monitoring the conditions around its collections with a wireless system that employs radio frequency identification and Wi-Fi to capture real-time and historical data regarding temperature fluctuations. The system, provided by SwiftSensors, captures conditions in cabinets and around displays, then forwards that information to a hosted server, where management can then view the data.

The Adler Planetarium offers one of the top three largest collections of scientific astronomical instruments in the world, with artifacts that date back to the 17th century and earlier. That includes telescopes, sundials, astrolabes and surveying equipment, as well as books and manuscripts. The museum, which opened in the 1930s in the same building where it now resides, includes approximately 3,000 three-dimensional artifacts, as well as around 3,000 rare and historic books and manuscripts by Galileo Galilei and other scientists.

The Adler Planetarium
The artifacts are made from a variety of materials, including metals, wood, paper and leather, all of which could potentially be sensitive to environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity fluctuations or water leaks. The fact that the building is approaching a century of use adds another challenge when it comes to controlling the conditions surrounding each artifact.

In fact, Adler's challenges are typical of those at many museums, says Christopher Helms, the planetarium's collections manager. Since the building is old and not necessarily designed for housing sensitive artifacts, the museum must closely monitor temperature and humidity levels. Until now, Helms notes, it has managed these conditions with hydrometers and analog temperature and humidity sensors that its staff of four collections team members check on a daily basis. It typically takes about an hour to look at the sensors, which equates to around 20 hours of effort weekly.

"Our staff would have to literally walk around the museum to check every day," Helms states, which not only proved labor-intensive, but meant data was not being collected automatically. "There's no record; you had to input that information into a record-keeping software or spreadsheet." The museum wanted not only to reduce that manual labor burden on the department, he says, but also to gain an automatic record of conditions and receive alerts if they fell outside of acceptable thresholds. In that way, staff members could address problems much more quickly.

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