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A Sensor Web For the Preservation of Artwork

A painting displayed on the wall has to put up with a lot of hazardous conditions. Dazzling light, unfavourable temperatures or too much moisture in the air are but a few of the hazards that take their toll on the artwork. Paintings in public galleries are even worse off, with the increased illumination, and impurities in the air visitors bring.

As with so much in life, there is normally no way to tell if a painting is experiencing too much of a bad thing until signs of physical damage start to appear. Of course, there is in theory at least, a solution in the form of the sensor web. Place sensors on the back of the painting, and they will experience the same conditions the painting experiences, and at the same time. They can raise an alert if any of a number of variables drift far enough from optimum to start causing damage – before the actual damage occurs.

Of course, as is so often the case with our nascent sensor web, it is more than just theory.

By combining modern technologies from the fields of microelectronics, building physics and information technology, three Fraunhofer Institutes and their partners have now developed a solution that meets the challenges that arise. Codenamed ArtGuardian, this sensor web consists of four sensors invisibly attached to each work of art; they register temperatures, humidity, lighting conditions and any bumps or movements. They talk to a base station which links them all together.

The base station is linked with an IT platform to which the owner or curator has immediate access at all times via smart phone. This app-based monitoring system is designed to work with either iPhone or Android based phones, and is designed to provide a minimum form-factor interface for those on the go. Because the processing is done on a separate base station, the app does not need to be running for alerts to be issued – they can be dialled in from the station to the phone directly.

If something happens to the base station, or the sensors cannot make contact with it for any reason, they record the data internally for broadcast once a connection is possible.

The light sensors call for a very special technology. As the sensor cannot be affixed onto the surface of the painting itself, researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP are developing a pane of glass coated with polymers which will be placed in front of the artwork. This thin layer reflects a part of the incident light towards the tiny sensors hidden under the frame.

“Each work of art calls for specific conditions depending not least on the work’s condition and age and the materials used to create it ” Ralf Kilian from the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP in Holzkirchen,Germany points out. This is why Artguardian comes equipped with a detailed set of rules for art conservation which is based on data collected by the IBP conservator team by means of their long lasting experience.

A complex logistical process comes into play when a work of art is placed on loan for an exhibition - a process where owners of artworks have had to rely on outside experts. “ArtGuardian changes this situation”, says Dr. Volker Zurwehn, deputy director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Software and Systems Engineering ISST, located in Dortmund, Germany. “The IT platform gives the owner an opportunity to monitor the conditions to which his or her artwork is exposed. In a further step, building-control technologies could be linked to the system, in order to adjust the indoor climate conditions automatically.”

Various museums have expressed an interest in this technology. Initially, samples will be taken over a period of three months to provide evidence, for instance, on the impact of environmental conditions on the deterioration of the various materials used in the paintings themselves. If successful, ArtGuardian or another system like it, may well expand to cover most museums and public galleries.


Artguardian: Watchman for artworks

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