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How RFID is Making Museums Enchanting

How RFID is Making Museums Enchanting

Museum designers have been working hard to change the musty, dusty reputation of museums, and RFID is helping with innovative applications. No longer is the hands-off “Night at the Museum” look the standard for U.S. museums. To attract new patrons, museums are bringing advanced technology to bear, including VR and RFID.

RFID in particular has been easy to adapt for new creative purposes. Many museums already use RFID to manage their collections, affixing unobtrusive RFID tags to art and artifacts. Doorway readers record when items are moved, whether from storage to exhibit, or from one room to another. Curators can check inventories as simply as walking into a room with an RFID scanner. Tags can be programmed to store a variety of data about the object: name, age, and collection information; restoration status; climatic requirements; maintenance schedule; and much more.

But beyond inventory management, RFID offers opportunities for interactive, immersive experiences for museum patrons. Some creative RFID applications:

  • Washington, D.C.’s International Spy Museum uses RFID-enabled badges to let visitors take on a spy’s persona. Visitors test their espionage skills as the spy of their choice, and receive an online “debriefing” after their visit.
  • Touring exhibit “The Science of Survival” allows visitors to make lifestyle choices in various sectors of the exhibit (transport, building, food and drink), collecting their answers via RFID entry badges. The results are compiled to forecast the future environmental impact of those choices in the year 2050.
  • At the O2 in London, visitors at the British Music Experience “collect” their favorite items on museum-issued RFID cards. In-depth information about their favorites is then sent to them in a follow-up email.
  • Visitors to the Horsens Prison Museum in Denmark can choose a specific guard or inmate to learn about – for example, a prisoner who escaped by digging a 59-foot tunnel. Visitors’ RFID badges activate videos and images related to each visitor’s particular subject, for a customized experience.

From museum managers’ point of view, RFID ‘s enhanced visitor experience helps to define and reinforce the museum’s brand, build visitor loyalty, and create publicity opportunities. From the museum patrons’ perspective, RFID creates a visitor experience that is far more personalized and immersive than the old-school museum walk-through. It’s fascinating, it’s imaginative, and most important, it’s just plain fun!


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The Surprising Statistics of U.S. Collecting Institutions

The Surprising Statistics of U.S. Collecting Institutions

No one can doubt the value of museums and libraries. These institutions are the repositories of our collective cultural memories, preserving history via written word and artifact, helping us find our way forward by knowing where we came from. And our U.S. collecting institutions – libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, and scientific collections – have created truly remarkable assemblages, according to the recently released results of the Heritage Health Information Survey:

  • The U.S. is home to more than 31,000 collecting institutions.
  • More than 13 billion items, from artworks to arrowheads, are preserved in these institutions.
  • Of those 13 billion items, many are in the form of individual paper documents, enough to fill 347 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Given these astonishing numbers, it’s no surprise that proper storage is vital for these collecting institutions. Museums and archives in particular put much of their effort into the conservation of their unique collections. They need storage that not only accommodates all the unusual sizes and shapes of artifacts, but preserves objects from further deterioration. Humidity and chemically-incompatible surfaces are damaging to any ancient artifact, and those Olympic pools of paper documents are especially prone to insect damage as well.

Luckily, storage providers have already anticipated the needs of collecting institutions, designing an array of space-saving, customizable, and protective systems. Adjustable shelving and partitioned drawers and bins fit artifacts both large and small. Flat files are well-suited to paper documents and unframed photos and paintings, while vertical racks hold framed artworks. These museum-friendly storage systems have non-reactive finishes and are sturdy enough for the heavy weight of stone sculptures or military ordinance.

Museums are chronically challenged to find enough exhibit space for their treasures, but a well-designed storage system can transform storage space into additional exhibit space. A high-density mobile storage system can save up to 50% of floor space, and a vertical storage carousel or a multi-level shelving system saves up to 80% of floor space.

Keeping track of all those objects can be a challenge, too. A written tracking system is time-consuming and often inaccurate. A bar code system is better, but it becomes ineffective if bar codes are obscured or damaged. An RFID system, with inconspicuous RFID tags that communicate with an RFID inventory reader, allows museum managers to track an object as it moves from storage to conservation room to exhibit room.

The work of U.S. collecting institutions is too important to trust to outmoded storage methods. With the help of an experienced storage consultant, conservators can look after their collections properly, now and in the future, as their collections grow far beyond the current numbers.


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RFID: Why It’s Not the Same as a Bar Code

RFID: Why It’s Not the Same as a Bar Code

Everyone knows what a bar code is – we can’t forget the commercial showing bank customers with bar codes on their foreheads – but the workflow and inventory management benefits of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology aren’t as well known. Like bar codes, RFID tags contain information about the item they’re attached to. No doubt you have seen those large plastic tags clipped on apparel in retail stores, and seen them removed by cashiers at the time of purchase – those are RFID tags, and they help the store manage inventory. But RFID tags also come in much smaller versions, like the one pictured here, and they can be affixed to everything from shipping boxes to artworks, tools, furniture, weapons, and even office file folders or individual documents. They’re inconspicuous, easy to apply, and last for 50 years.

The technological difference between RFID and bar codes is this: Like books or newspapers, bar codes are printed in ink, and must be visually read by an electronic scanner. RFID tags, by contrast, are essentially tiny radio transmitters, bouncing a signal back to an RFID reader just the way your favorite radio station relays a signal to your car radio. The RFID signal contains unique identifying information about the item the tag is attached to.

On the surface, RFID may not seem to offer any advantages over bar codes. Nevertheless, Walmart, Macy’s, and other retailers turned to RFID for a very good reason: Labor costs. Their inventory management systems were based on bar codes, and the bar code scanner had to “see” the bar code. Because it couldn’t see around corners or through walls, every item in a stockroom or warehouse had to be manually turned toward the reader – a time-consuming labor-intensive process. And labor is expensive.

The radio signals of an RFID tag, however, can be “grabbed” by an RFID reader without the reader ever having to see the tag. As long as the reader is in proximity to the tag (same room or same building), it receives the information from the RFID tag via radio waves, without any need to handle the inventory. In effect, the RFID reader can see around corners, or through a stack of boxes, or into a filing cabinet. The labor of inventory management becomes as simple as walking into a room.

RFID is a game-changer for any organization that needs to keep track of inventory or assets:

  • Facility managers know where every desk and chair is located without doing a room-to-room count.
  • Automobile manufacturers streamline workflows by tracking parts as vehicles move through the assembly line.
  • Museum curators are certain of which storeroom contains a particular collection, without having to open drawers or rummage through shelves.
  • Warehouse managers know exactly what a new shipment contains without having to open the boxes.
  • Paralegals locate critical documents in a law office without having to search through multiple files.

Bar code technology is far from obsolete, however. Bar codes are a proven solution for an array of situations in which labor costs are not such a big part of the inventory management calculus. But for many organizations, RFID offers productivity benefits that boost the bottom line.

As every manager and owner knows, inventory and asset management is vital to any successful enterprise. RFID will streamline your workflow and improve inventory accountability. Consult with an expert in inventory management and storage who can tell you if RFID or bar coding, or both, could be the right solution for your business.


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Designing the Disaster-Proof Museum

Designing the Disaster-Proof Museum

The recent devastating fire in the National Museum of Brazil reminds everyone in the museum realm that disasters can strike any time. Fire, flood, climate, earthquakes – the potential for damage and loss takes many forms, and no museum is invulnerable. The Association of Art Museum Directors reported over 13 million art objects in museums in 2015, a figure that doesn’t include historic artifacts, science and technology collections, and exceptional cultural items. Since that time, collections have only grown larger. With such a quantity of unique and priceless objects at stake, museum designers are looking for new ways to protect their collections from natural disasters.

In the Netherlands, for example, Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is filled with Old Masters, and like most of the city, it’s below sea level. In the past 14 years the museum has been threatened with flooding five times. As reported in the Washington Post, construction is underway on an above-ground flood-proof storage facility designed to keep the Boijmans’ collections out of harm’s way.

In Los Angeles, wildfires and earthquakes are a way of life. The Getty Museum was designed with fire-proofing features from the very start; the exterior is stone clad, and the surrounding grounds can be soaked with an irrigation system if fire threatens. If the ground begins to shake, ingenious stabilized display cases keep art and artifacts safe in this earthquake-prone zone.

The Louvre is in danger of flooding, as we discussed in a previous post, and many of its treasures are stored in structurally-unsound old Parisian buildings. The museum broke ground in late 2017 on a state-of-the-art storage and restoration facility, partially underground, which uses thermal mass (the surrounding soil) to maintain a stable indoor climate. The site incorporates a water management system which recycles water for the exterior landscape and also guards against flooding.

Like fire suppression and climate control, storage is part of the museum-safety picture. Fire-proof cabinets protect flammable documents, and multi-level storage elevates collections away from flood danger. Art racks and flat drawers bring space-efficient storage to climate-controlled areas. In the event that collections have to be evacuated, RFID tracks the whereabouts of each inventoried object.

Designers are taking their cue from the Getty, the Louvre, and others, incorporating these innovative storage systems into new construction and retrofits as part of a complete disaster-mitigation strategy. Their hope, and ours too, is that disasters can be a thing of the past in the museums of tomorrow.


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Art Storage and the Deaccessioning Controversy

Art Storage and the Deaccessioning Controversy

As any museum director will tell you, deaccessioning is not quite as simple as cleaning out one’s closets and holding a yard sale. Museums as a whole have a mission to acquire, conserve, and exhibit collections for the benefit of their communities. Reducing the number of artworks or artifacts seems almost antithetical. The decision to sell some of the objects in a museum’s collection is a complex one; condition, authenticity, redundancy, and donor restrictions are just a few of the factors in deciding to deaccess, particularly when an object is one that ought to remain available to the public.

The pressure to downsize can sometimes stem from the impossibility of exhibiting the full scope of a museum’s collections. Michael O’Hare, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that as much as 90% of major museums’ collections are languishing in storage, never included in an exhibit seen by the public. He argues that unseen artworks have no real value. “Aside from maybe someday appearing in a scholarly article… just how are these works creating cultural value if no one is looking at them?” O’Hare asks.

Everyone agrees that museums exist, in large part, to exhibit their art and artifacts, but exhibit space is at a premium. Exhibits require sufficient space for each object to be appreciated on its own, and the size of any exhibit is limited by the museum’s footprint. Adding to the spatial challenge is the amount of space required for a museum’s storage. Sometimes a large percentage of a museum’s total area has to be devoted to the safe and secure storage of its unique collections.

And that storage space might in fact be the place where additional exhibit space can be found. Well-designed high density storage systems can condense a storage footprint by as much as 80%. Compact shelving and racking systems eliminate fixed aisles and adjust to accommodate the wide variety of shapes and sizes of collected objects. By clawing back some inefficiently-used storage space, museums can find themselves with room to expand their exhibits.

With the ability to display more of their collections, museums are better able to fulfill their mission. Deaccessioning, as defined by the Association of Art Museum Directors, will always be part of managing a museum’s collection. But with efficiently-used storage space, more works can be retained and displayed for the education and enjoyment of the public.


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The Lean Museum

The Lean Museum

Lean management techniques are most commonly associated with manufacturing and logistics, and not with collections of historic artifacts or centuries-old artworks. Is there a place for the new lean leadership style in institutions that are, by their very nature, conservative?

The answer is an emphatic “Yes,” according to presenters at the Museums and the Web Conference. Lean management relies on bottom-up processes rather than top-down methods, with the goal of maximizing productivity while minimizing waste. It relies on feedback to learn what works, continuously testing and improving processes for best performance. For museums, this means listening to patrons to discover how they use the museum, the museum’s website, and the museum’s other outreach efforts. Senior management solicits input from “boots on the ground” staffers to gain insight into what’s popular with patrons and what patrons tell staffers informally. With this kind of knowledge, directors can re-shape the museum’s programs to fit the demands of the market, without wasting resources on exhibits that the market doesn’t want.

Working in tandem with lean management is the agile workplace. The agile framework builds on incremental successes, and responds to changes in the real world rather than following a plan that may be based on false assumptions. For museums, this means testing a small program, measuring its success, and building on that success with a larger program. It means that new information should be acted on quickly, and staffers should be empowered to self-organize into teams to implement the changes required by the new information. Like lean management, the agile workplace aims for greater efficiencies and therefore lower costs.

Translating lean, agile management into the physical realities of a museum can be a challenge for facilities managers. Bricks and mortar don’t respond quickly to market demands and new knowledge. Nevertheless, there are ways to make interior spaces more responsive, adaptive, and efficient. One is high-density mobile storage. If a museum patron survey demands fewer artworks or artifacts on display, then the surplus has to be stored, but building out new climate-controlled storage is impractical and costly. A mobile storage system increases storage capacity by condensing shelving area, without expanding the existing storage footprint. Shelving compartments can be customized to fit collections of all shapes and sizes, and storage surfaces can be treated with non-interactive coatings to preserve items in their original condition. Storage space is used with maximum efficiency, reflecting the goals of the agile workplace.

Museums may be dealing with the past, but their management style can be thoroughly up to date. Mobile storage fits right in with the needs of the lean and agile workplace.


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