The Met Teams With IBM To Preserve Art, Avoid Going Medieval On Assets

With a new indoor weather monitoring system, IBM makes it easier to ensure rare art is properly preserved. But the implications go far beyond museums.

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Humans have, in general, done a decent job of preserving relics of the past in museums. But there is always room for improvement—especially when it comes to managing fragile, ancient works of art. A new indoor weather forecasting system from IBM may help.

IBM announced this week that it is teaming up with the Metropolitan Museum of Art to test a wireless environmental sensor network—dubbed, unsexily, the Low-Power Mote—in the museum's Cloisters, a section that holds 3,000 works of art from medieval Europe. The works, which include paintings, tapestries, and illuminated manuscripts, date from the 12th through the 15th century.

The art is already tightly guarded with controlled climates and sealed cases, but IBM is ramping up the protection even more with 100 Low-Power Mote sensors placed throughout the Cloisters.

Here's how the system works: the sensors measure things like temperature, air flow, humidity, contamination levels, door positions, and light levels. The data is processed through IBM's Intelligent Building Management software, which spits out real-time 3-D temperature, humidity, and dew-point visualizations. This allows museum scientists to match the reaction of art objects to environmental changes so that in the future, they can more accurately predict how a painting will react to, say, a slight increase in humidity.

The Met's sensors are currently in testing, and if all goes well, the Met will bring them to different galleries in the museum. Eventually, they could lead to entirely new ways of preserving art. And once the sensors prove effective in museums, they could move to buildings with less precious cargo, but that still need help monitoring internal conditions (IBM's new software has already been installed at Tulane University). Going beyond a simple humidity and temperature readout could allow buildings to streamline their climate controls, saving energy and countless dollars.

[Image by Flickr user ennuipoet]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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