Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are automating their inventory of works of art

Wemmel, 31 May 2016 – PHI DATA®, which specializes in automatic identification and location solutions, is devising a comprehensive RFID solution for automated stock-taking of 3,500 works of art for the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium. The hardware and software solutions used will also make it possible to trace all movements of the works of art and update the database containing the 3,500 items automatically.

The Modern Art department of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium possesses over 3,500 paintings. All these items are catalogued in the museum’s database. The museum calls on the services of the curators for archiving, stock-taking and tracing these works in the storage rooms and the exhibition rooms of the RMFAB. They carry out a manual check at regular intervals on the location and physical condition of the art works. If art works change location, this needs to be meticulously updated. Because it is such a large collection, these actions are often a time-consuming, laborious affair.

Automated asset management

Therefore, the museum started looking for an automation system that would enable faster, more efficient inventory control. The solution also needed to be able to track the movements of works of art between the various buildings, and update the database automatically. “We were looking for a hardware and software-based system”, says Frederik Leen, Head of the Modern Art Department, who wrote the specifications for this aspect of collection management together with Maarten Lousbergh, Head of the Security & Facility Department of the museum. “We wanted a total system that we could link to our database that enabled us to handle asset management efficiently.”

A public procurement tender was issued, and PHI DATA® submitted the winning bid. “Not only was the solution they proposed the most advantageous in financial terms, but the quality of their system rated very highly. It is also a system that combines the latest technology with simple implementation and excellent user-friendliness. And in this case, that is of the utmost importance”, Frederik Leen and Maarten Lousbergh said to explain their decision.

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Unique identity and location with RFID technology

PHI DATA® proposed a solution using RFID technology and custom-written software, IDAsset. Each work of art receives an RFID label, which gives it a unique identity. These labels can be read-in both by the curators’ hand scanners, and by strategically placed portals with antennae. In practice, this means that all works in the exhibition rooms and the storage rooms are read-in automatically via the radiofrequency technology of the handheld scanners. Using PHI DATA®‘s IDAsset software, the database is automatically notified of the precise location of a work of art. When being moved from one room to another, the works pass through portals, which also record RFID labels. These portals are configured so that movements are recorded automatically. By reading the RFID label and detecting the direction in which the work moves through the portal, the database indicates the room where a work is located and when it was moved. The software also updates the database automatically.

Accuracy and efficiency

RFID technology increased the accuracy of stock-taking, risky operations are kept to a minimum, and the detailed history of the movements of the art works are available at any time. PHI DATA® and the museum opted for passive RFID labels. These are so small that they can be affixed to the works of art without causing damage. Another advantage is that they do not need to be replaced, because they do not contain batteries that go flat after 2-3 years. The proposed solution includes a printer. This prints visual information on the RFID labels. This provides the curator with the digital information on the RFID reader, as well as the visual information on the label. This simplifies the job considerably.

An extra challenge

The collection contains extremely valuable works. That is why the works of art are stored and transported in crates specially designed for the purpose. So it was also very important that the RFID labels, the portals and the readers should be powerful enough to be able to read “through” the packaging. “There too, we were pleasantly surprised”, explains Frederik Leen. “We tested the power of the RFID by putting the paintings inside a double-skinned package. The results were very positive, even in narrow aisles, long corridors or where there are iron doors.”

Next phase: rollout

Now that the test phase is complete, the next few months will see the installation. The museum is installing the facilities and the electricity cables. PHI DATA® will then configure the portals, implement the software and establish the link with the database. “The second half of the year will be used for testing and trial operation. If everything goes according to plan, the major stock-taking will take place at the beginning of 2017, after which we will be going fully live”, says Maarten Lousbergh. “The aim is to extend the project to other departments of the museum in future, and handle the inventory of a large proportion of the museum’s 20,000 items using an RFID solution”, adds Frederik Leen.

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