How IBM is Enabling Smarter Management of ... Medieval Abbeys

Question:What does a rack of high-performance, network blade-servers have in common with the 15th century Flemish tapestry The Hunt for the Unicorn?

Answer: Both are being watched over by some of IBM's most advanced smart building systems.

Last week, as part of a roll-out of a broader suite of smart building technologies, I got to enjoy a dose of high culture and high technology, catching Big Blue's announcement of novel collaboration with New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

IBM is supplying a suite of hardware and software as part of its Intelligent Building Management system to help the Met fine-tune the maintenance and preservation of its one-of-a-kind collection of medieval artwork.

The move adapts technology developed originally to monitor and manage energy-intensive data centers -- cutting-edge technology of the 21st century -- to help care or for some of the most priceless, hand-made religious and secular artifacts dating back to 800 AD.

hunting of the unicorn detailAt the announcement, Dr. Paolo DionisiVici, an Associate Research Scientist at the Met, made clear why doing the latter represents the greater challenge.

The Met's main medieval collection is housed in The Cloisters Museum & Gardens, an assemblage of medieval French abbey structures, transplanted nearly a century ago (more on that below).

Authentic as the setting is, the challenges of managing temperature, humidity, and other variables are daunting: castle-like thick rock walls define a space that sees tens of thousands of visitors each year.

The artwork itself also offers up material preservation challenges of a stupefying variety.

The tapestries, like the most-famous-of-all Unicorn hanging, are made of a combination of wool, linen, metal threads, vegetable dyes and other delicate materials. After 600 years, they remain remarkably vivid.

Nearby in the museum are painted wooded religious artifacts that require different preservation conditions.

"Every object is unique," DionisiVici said.

memsic iris moteThat's where IBM comes in. To monitor this menagerie, IBM is deploying a network of low-power motes -- small electronics packages fitted with sensors and antennae for communication. [An example of a type of mote IBM has developed, the MEMSIC IRIS mote, is pictured at left.]

"The motes can sense temperature, humidity, corrosion, contamination, light levels, air flow, pressure and more," said Dr. Hendrik F. Hamann, one of IBM's research scientists working on the project. The motes are also very energy-efficient and self-configure into a "mesh" network, he explained, by independently figuring out how to route data from one to the next.