Automated Artwork

The company behind the Albertina Museum’s automation success in Europe brings its solutions to the Middle East.

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By  Robeel Haq Published  November 12, 2006

|~|automated2.jpg|~||~|The topic of automated storage solutions normally invokes images of futuristic warehouses, with impressive machines shifting products between racking systems and picking areas. On the contrary, however, storage automation is not limited to warehouse environments. Instead, it can be extended to a variety of different surroundings, from hospitals and factories, to airports and document storage facilities. Even the museum world has jumped on the bandwagon. Over in Vienna, the prestigious Albertina Museum has implemented a fully automated system to handle its valuable artwork collection. Its decision to embrace storage automation initially sent shockwaves throughout the international museum community, with several prominent spokespeople questioning the viability of such a move. However, years after making the decision, and with the automated system now operational, the Albertina has been hailed for its innovative thinking, becoming a successful case study for its peers around the world. “Initially, it was difficult to convince everyone about the benefits of using automated storage in the museum,” says Dr. Alfred Weidinger, director, Albertina Museum. “All over the world, people were questioning my decision to invest in such a system. However, with everything in place, other museums can easily understand the concept now and recognise the various advantages.” The system, which was installed by the Austrian company Ecolog in 2002, is located in a deep concrete building within the museum, 13 metres below street level. With limited space an issue for many museums, including the Albertina, the warehouse area is built on a base measuring only 400m². More than a million paintings are stored, including work by renowned artists such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Dürer. “This is truly unique, on a global level,” says Manfred Lindner, Ecolog’s chief executive officer. “We analysed the requirements of the Albertina for some time and finally decided on a completely different approach to previous projects. It took eight years to completely sell the idea to the museum officials and even to local politicians, because special permission was required before work could commence.” Special conditions are essential for artwork storage, to keep the Albertina Museum’s collection in optimum condition. Paintings are traditionally very sensitive and damage can occur by simply increasing humidity levels or moving the artwork between different rooms. Ecolog needed to take these unique requirements into consideration when designing the automated system, avoiding temperature fluctuations or vibrations once the mechanics were operational. The final product keeps temperature at a constant 19 degrees Celsius, with 50% humidity levels. Additionally, the environment is kept largely dust-free and people can only enter the warehouse for exceptional reasons, such as maintenance work. “Art is very special and the value is a big issue with us, especially because we are handling work by Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. If one of the paintings is destroyed, the impact is massive, both financially and non-financially,” says Weidinger. “However, the automated system reduces the risk of damage compared to the previous manual process. Despite the accelerated speed, it’s very smooth and does not vibrate, which increases the artwork’s lifespan.” The storage area consists of a fully automated two-aisle warehouse, with a total height of 14.7 metres and almost 100,000 storing positions for steel trays. Each tray contains cardboard cassettes in which the actual artefact is stored. Everything is controlled using a warehouse management system (WMS), custom designed by Ecolog. “The storage area is attached to a number of internal study rooms located across three different storeys, in addition to a restoration room,” explains Weidinger. “The museum uses two single-mast stacker cranes, which transports the artwork between each room, substituting the former manual storage and retrieval process. The access time has been reduced to under one minute for the retrieval of each painting.” High security is another important issue for museum storage, because of the value of each individual artefact. A number of safety precautions have been implanted at the Albertina Museum, with access protections for the storage and retrieval process, as well as the automated depot itself. The warehouse is also bedded in a hermetic mantle, secured against fire, with a cover mounted above the top storing levels to avoid water drops. A series of leakage detectors also provide safety in the form of a water precaution system. “The automated storage system is comprehensive and provides the Albertina Museum with security against theft, better space utilisation, perfect climate control and the smooth handling of the artefacts with predefined acceleration and speed reduction,” says Lindner. “Horizontal storage is also the very best way to stock artefacts and we reduce the risk of damage from human errors.” The Albertina Museum has championed the automated system over the years, voicing its satisfaction to counterparts throughout the world. This could prove lucrative for Ecolog too and the company is planning to offer similar solutions to customers in the Middle East. “It is a fact that everywhere, where valuable works of art are stored, highest security is needed and smoothest handling is a must,” says Lindner. “We strongly believe that every museum should have a closer look at alternative storing possibilities in order to handle the artefacts more gently and efficiently.” The market might seem limited at the moment, with a relatively small number of museums and galleries located in the Middle East. However, countries such as the United Arab Emirates have announced big plans for various cultural centres in the future. With local ambitions to meet leading global standards, demand for automated solutions amongst these centres is certainly possible. Indeed, it is already catching the attention of existing galleries. “The system used by the Albertina Museum sounds brilliant and would work in a purpose built gallery in the Middle East too,” says Alison Collins, managing partner at the Majlis Gallery in Dubai. “It’s a very interesting concept because storage is every gallery’s nightmare, especially in this region, where the challenges are somewhat increased due to harsher conditions, such as the heat.” Although museums in the Middle East are normally smaller in size, this does not rule out the suitability of automated storage systems. Companies such as Ecolog can customise solutions for small and medium sized companies too. However, educating the market about the advantages is a more immediate concern. “It is still a lot of work to convince a museum of the benefits, due to the fact that most are owned by the state, where a lot of decision makers need to be convinced,” says Lindner. “For sure, more and more museums will have a closer look at this alternative storage solution, but we also expect that political reasons might be an obstacle for implementing automated storage systems.” ||**||

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