As art museums mushroom in China, Hong Kong finds cheaper way to protect exhibits from the elements

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 August, 2015, 6:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 August, 2015, 7:04pm

To better protect valuable works of art or historic artefacts, Hong Kong researchers have developed a real-time environmental monitoring system for museums that is smaller and cheaper than existing technologies.

Scientists from the Faculty of Engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong developed the wireless sensor system with input from curators at public museums in the city. 

The technology is debuting at an exhibition at the Hong Kong Science Museum after successful test runs at the Hong Kong Film Archive and the Hong Kong Museum of History.

“A device like this can be deployed easily, dismounted easily and moved [with the exhibits] elsewhere easily,” said Professor Cheng Chun-hung.

Cheng, who lead research into the software at the university, said the device’s wireless design is unobtrusive and reduces the need for cabling in historic buildings.

The system, which can measure relative humidity, temperature, vibrations, light intensity and ultraviolet levels, is less than half the size of the British system currently in use in the museum. It is also a tenth of the price.

Previous systems only measured the temperature and humidity levels.

Most monitoring technology costs more than HK$4,000 (US$516) for each display case. It also requires an annual payment of HK$80 to transmit data on a dedicated frequency, and cannot be monitored remotely.

Curators using the CUHK-developed technology can place up to five sensors measuring 2.5 centimetres across in each case to report to a communication device and send data through a router to the server.

Museum curators can monitor individual display cases remotely and set ideal ranges or alerts if the relative humidity or temperature strays out of bounds.

The Hong Kong Innovation and Technology Fund (ITF) provided HK$9 million to develop the sensors. The project received another HK$1 million from industry players.

About 20 of the devices are now being used for an exhibition focusing on Western scientific instruments of the Qing Court. China’s last imperial dynasty ruled from 1644 to 1912. The show features clocks and paintings from Beijing’s Palace Museum, among other artefacts. It is being supported by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The researchers plan to license the technology to manufacturers in the city.

China could feed demand due to its growing number of public and private art and other museums. Private art museums have mushroomed in China in recent years and are now believed to number in the hundreds. 

The project, undertaken in collaboration with the Hong Kong R&D Centre for Logistics and Supply Chain Management Enabling Technologies, also has applications in the logistics industry. It can be used to ensure fruit, wine and other products are transported at a stable temperature.

“This is a very, very welcome technology that has great market potential in logistics applications or general e-commerce applications,” said Simon K.Y. Wong , chief executive officer of the centre.