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RFID and the Arts

Arts organizations are turning to RFID as a flexible and cost-effective way to track and safeguard precious objects.
By John Edwards
Feb 26, 2007—On New Year's Day morning 2000, a smoke canister crashed through a skylight at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. Fire alarms sounded at the world's oldest public museum, and as security guards rushed from the building, a thief dropped a rope ladder through the skylight, lowered himself into a gallery and helped himself to a Cezanne painting entitled "Auvers-sur-Oise". The thief—and the £3 million ($5.9 million) artwork—were gone well before police and firefighters arrived.

The theft—one of the largest art heists in recent U.K. history—delivered a wake-up call to the National Gallery, a London-based institution maintaining one of the world's greatest collections of European paintings. "After the theft of the Cezanne, we decided we needed to reinforce our security," says Jon Campbell, the gallery's head of visitor services and security. Pondering its options, the museum decided that RFID technology, which helps eliminate the need for costly and intrusive wiring, should play a key role in its overall security strategy.

London's National Gallery

As RFID matures, the technology is quickly expanding its presence beyond warehouses and factories, and into the genteel world of museums, galleries and theaters. "Yet the goals are really the same," says Ellen Daley, enterprise mobility research director for Forrester Research, a technology research firm in Cambridge, Mass. "It's all about identification and tracking"

But a museum isn't a warehouse, and a theater isn't a factory, so as RFID moves into the art world to protect masterpieces of all shapes and sizes, the technology is also creating challenges for both vendors and adopters. Hurdles include adapting freight-oriented tags to small and delicate objects, funding the addition of new technology and training staff members in RFID's operation and quirks. "It's all of the issues that are associated with addressing a new market," Daley says.

National Gallery
To help it develop an RFID-based security system, the National Gallery contacted ISIS, a London-based developer of RFID asset-tracking technologies. ISIS has installed systems at several historic royal palaces, as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Royal Academy and many other U.K. and global venues. The company recommended using its Aspects ARTS active tag system, which enables artworks to continuously signal their presence to interrogators covertly placed on the museum's ceilings.

Over the past several years, credit-card-sized tags have been installed on the artworks in the National Gallery's main exhibit areas and reserve collection. Every tag includes a unique ID, as well as a sensing feature able to detect both vibration and tilting. "Each tag has a lifetime of over six years," says Rob Green, ISIS's managing director. Interrogators receive a signal from each tag every 15 seconds. If a reader misses a signal, or if the system is compromised in any way, the Aspects ARTS software sounds an alarm. A computer and display system kicks into action, showing the endangered artwork's exact location and displaying and recording nearby CCTV video streams for visual identification and evidence. "The system also sends a message to the guards' pagers," says Green, "telling them what's being touched and activating a sounder."

Campbell says the security system presented a substantial learning curve to the museum's staff. Workers had to figure out, for example, how to mount the tags onto artworks without causing any damage. Employees also had to be educated about the technology's operation. "Early on, we did see a pretty high level of false alarms," he says. "If you start moving works of art around in the galleries without telling anybody, people will start assuming that something is perhaps in the process of being stolen."

Still, Campbell is pleased with the technology overall. "What we got is very much what we asked for," he says. "I would say that it has worked well for us."
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