Met Museum deploys sensors to watch art breathe

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has successfully deployed a wireless environmental sensor network at the museum to help monitor and preserve medieval artwork.

New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art announced on Thursday that it had successfully deployed a wireless environmental sensor network at the museum to help preserve artwork.

The network, an IBM system called "Lower-Power Mote," is currently in use for about 3,000 works of art -- paintings, tapestries and wood sculpture, some 800 years old -- at the museum's medieval branch, The Cloisters.

The announcement is important because efficiency and sustainability are often at odds with a museum's mission. While few would dispute the benefit of lower lighting, for example, lowering the temperature of the museum to save on energy costs could quickly have a detrimental affect on the works on display.

That's where sensors come in. Better sensors can be more accurate in the fluctuations in temperature and humidity within a room -- really, within an area of a room -- allowing curators to more finely control the building's systems. You could say that these kinds of sensors can watch artwork "breathe."

The announcement binds the mission of IBM researchers and art conservators. The Lower-Power Mote system consists of a low-power wireless sensor network, data storage, modeling and analysis.

As such, conservators gain time-stamped data and real-time visualization for the museum's assets, which should help them react to sudden issues as well as make more informed decisions in pursuit of sustainability goals -- say, for LEED certification.

The initial phase involves the use of 100 sensors -- temperature, humidity, air flow, contamination levels, door positions, light levels, etc. -- in seven adjacent rooms of the museum, including the room with the museum's famous Unicorn tapestries. Data is fed into a software application where it is modeled to provide detailed real-time three-dimensional temperature, humidity and dew point distributions.

Museum officials can generate and visualize hydrodynamic flows in real-time, IBM says.

Naturally, all this data helps the field of art conservation, allowing conservators to see how art objects react to specific environmental changes at a very granular level.

The next phase for the project is to expand the sensor network into more of the museum's galleries and eventually bring the system to the museum's flagship branch on Fifth Avenue.

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