That medieval paintings are speaking data to a wood scientist is one example of how low-cost, miniaturized computer chips and wireless technology can enable physical objects to communicate with other computers and devices over the internet—what’s often called the “Internet of things.”
IBM first used these sensors to drive down energy use in information technology and telecommunications infrastructure. David Bartlett, vice president of industry solutions with IBM’s Smarter Buildings program, says the company is now deploying its low-power “motes” in less obvious environments, including museums, hospitals, and college campuses. In other cases, engineers are using advanced sensors to monitor deteriorating bridges and highways.
The Cloisters has not yet connected the sensors to the building’s heating and cooling system, which Dionisi Vici says would better embody IBM’s concept for smarter buildings, where software can be used to actually automate building operations.
Doing so could also save the Cloisters more energy. The main Metropolitan Museum of Art building, for example, is a big energy user in New York City because of its need to maintain a constant climate as visitors stream through. The pilot project may eventually expand to the Fifth Avenue facility.
Saving energy, however, could never be a main priority when centuries-old art is at stake, Dionisi Vici believes. So far, he says, the data at the Cloisters show that the museum staff does a good job of keeping the building in the required climate range, and the sensor system will help.
What he is ultimately after—what is every museum conservator’s dream—is art that can last forever, he says. “When we talk about art objects, they have such a long story behind them. It’s a sort of mechanical memory. There’s still so much to learn.”