RFID in Museums and Galleries: A Review

RFID Interactivity at the Chopin Museum: Image: http://www.centrescreen.co.uk/projects/chopin-museum

RFID technologies are increasingly being incorporated into applications in museums and other heritage and educational settings. Many of these institutions have found unique ways to utilize the technology to improve the management of their collections as well as the onsite visitor experience. As noted in earlier blogs, the Curpanion system is exploiting RFID technology to enhance both the onsite and post-museum visitor experience in natural history galleries and zoological collections. This blog summarises the research we have been doing into the application of RFID in museums and highlights both the potential and problematics of using RFID (and related) technology within this setting.

There are three main ways in which RFID is currently being applied in the museum setting:

1. Artefact tracking

2. Security

3. Visitor Experience

Each of these applications will be reviewed in turn, but first a brief introduction to RFID for the unfamiliar.


Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) uses radio waves to communicate between two objects: a reader and a tag. RFID communication is the same as two way radio communication in the sense that information is transmitted or received via a radio wave at a specific frequency. However, one of the major differences is that RFID systems detect the presence of the other remote device, namely the tag. In addition, passive (un-powered) tags can be powered remotely for a short period of time by the reader. Also, all tags contain a small amount of memory that can be read from (and sometimes written to) over the air by the reader. Most of the time, the piece of memory contains some type of unique identification information.



Image: http://www.flatorb.com/project/rfid-inventory-tracking/


RFID's origins lie in an espionage tool called 'The Thing' (a covert listening device), created by Russian inventor Leon Theremin in the 1940's (find out more here). RFID in it’s modern form is most closely associated with a consortium of companies and researchers from MIT who formed the “Auto-ID Center” — a center for research into the nature and use of radio frequency identification. The consortium identified the potential of RFID to replace the barcode, providing organizations with a more effective way to identify and track their assets. The vision underlying automatic identification (or Auto-ID) was the creation of an "Internet of Objects" or “Internet of Things”.  In such a highly connected network, it was conceived that devices dispersed through an enterprise could talk to each other, providing real-time information about the location, contents, destination, and ambient conditions of assets. Today RFID is applied in this manner to track and communicate the movement of products, containers, vehicles, and other ‘assets’ (including animals - more on this soon...) across vast geographic areas.


Image: http://hacknmod.com/hack/rfid-tutorial-everything-you-need/


It is important to stress, however, that RFID isn’t just a barcode replacement technology. Rather, it is a system component with the potential to change almost every aspect of service delivery, not just circulation and tracking. New opportunities for RFID applications are arising, notably from the integration of sensor technology to RFID tags. Emerging RFID applications in this area include:

  • Self-check ins at Libraries / rental services as well as retail premises.

  • Livestock Management and pet identification.

  • Toll/road – collection/charging and control measures. Many more RFID-based payment collection systems.

  • Building Security - secure access controls, documentation and passports.

  • Airports - for baggage tracking and tracing/locating.

  • SMART home controls - systems to manage home/business energy consumption/production.

  • Seismic Sensing - such as locating gas lines and temperature sensing (geophysical).

  • Environmental - Energy, Ozone & Pollution measuring equipment.

Image: http://www.jesic-tech.com/RFID_iLib.html


Within the cultural heritage sector, libraries are the organisations that have most widely and readily adopted RFID technology to date. However, a growing number of museums and galleries are implementing and experimenting with the technology to provide novel solutions to: 1. artefact tracking, 2. security and 3. visitor experience. Each of these applications will be reviewed in turn to provide a brief outline of the current state of play of RFID (and related technologies) in museums and galleries.

RFID in Museums and Galleries:

1. Artefact Tracking: ‘Talking Tags’


Image: https://science.naturalis.nl/en/collection/visits/collections-visitor-form/


Museums only show a fraction of their full inventories and managing these ‘behind-the-scenes’ collections is an often difficult and time-consuming task. Furthermore when museum artifacts are loaned to other museums, identifying, locating and tracking those works can add to an already very labour intensive process. Some institutions will use barcodes to track and manage their inventories which require line of sight and in some cases unpacking and moving in order to get a scan (often requiring the handling of delicate artifacts). Helicon Conservation Support, a company in the Netherlands, developed an RFID-based system called “talking tag” which is an interactive RFID label that contains information such as the object, number, photo, description and location. The Tag also holds the key to information relating to the packing and shipping of objects, their physical condition and storage conditions. The Talking-Tag system can be used to identify museum objects in storage, exhibition, or on loan without the need to handle the objects. The system has been implemented in several Dutch museums, including Naturalis in Leiden (image above), and feedback thus far has suggested the system reduces artifact tracking time and increases the ease of exhibit setup and dismantling (e.g. see: http://www.helicon-cs.com/downloads/kennisdelen/Object%20identification%20without%20handling%20objects.pdf).

2.  Security: ‘Smart Tracking’


Image: http://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/184636/radio-tracking-system-museum

Protecting assets from theft is paramount to any museum exhibiting rare and priceless artifacts. Smarttrack RFID technology, an Australian-based company, developed an RFID design solution specifically for art gallery and museum collections. The Smarttrack RFID solution, which uses passive UHF Gen 2 RFID technology, enables museums and art galleries to achieve “full visibility of their collections, streamline and fast-track collection audits and provides tight artifact security by automatically tracking the movement of objects and artworks throughout a museum”. If an artefact moves beyond a preset boundary such as a room or doorway, museum security is instantly notified and the artefact can be easily located. New Zealand’s Otago Museum was the first museum in Australasia to have all its collection items audited and tracked using sophisticated RFID technology supplied by Smarttrack RFID. The implementation involves attaching a Smarttrack RFID tag to each collection item. Fixed Smarttrack RFID readers located at various entry and exit points in the Museum’s collection storage areas and at the front of the building will track collection item movement through the Museum. When a reader detects the signal from a tag, details regarding the item and its location are automatically updated in the Museum’s Vernon Collection Management System.

As well as monitoring the movement of artefacts within and from the Museum, thus improving its ability to track, audit and secure its artefacts, the new system will also enable the Otago Museum to have a complete overview of the collection, allowing research and acquisition activities in particular to be carried out and prioritised based on high-quality, easily accessible information. Clare Wilson, Director of Collections and Research at Otago Museum, has commented that the labour costs saved through the new system (where previously manual tracking and auditing) is enabling the museum “to allocate resources to the care, interpretation and development of our collection”, which puts them in an improved position when planning exhibitions and scheduling the rotation of items on display (see http://smarttrackrfid.com/pdfs/smarttrack-otago-museum-case-study%20rev.pdf). Also, although not expressly stated by the museum or Smarttrack RFID, the system also puts the museum in a excellent position to make their collections more readily accessible to their visitors. While Smarttrack RFID is mainly focused on implementing RFID for the monitoring of ‘behind-the-scenes’ collections, there are many ways in which such a system could be harnessed to improve visitor interaction with the museum collection both in the galleries and online.

3. Visitor Experience: ‘RFID Interactivity’




While the main application of RFID in the cultural and heritage sector tends to be targeted towards inventory management and issues of security, it is clear from recent case-studies that museums and galleries can benefit from this technology in more creative ways than mere stock management. For example, in addition to inventory management, a growing number of museums and galleries are utilising the technology to improve the interactivity of visitor experience both on and off site.

Just in the same way as barcode readers and QR codes have been used to connect visitors of physical exhibits to expanded information on museum websites or databases, RFID is being employed to bridge physical/virtual museum experience. The idea is a simple one: there is too much information to put on a wall label, so let’s direct the visitor to a virtual resource where they can learn more. This way the museum can continue to impact the visitor after they have left the museum and create personalised post-museum experiences. For museums such personalisation gives greater insight into visitors’ interests and enables the museum to build a more engaged community. Understanding visitors’ preferences and interests through such a system could also enable the museum to offer a range of targeted services and content, creating the opportunity to develop a ladder of engagement that can lead from participation and engaged learning to membership and donations.

In what follows a number of ‘case-studies’ of RFID-enhanced visitor experiences will be examined to garner what lessons can be learned from them in relation to our project. While there are an increasing number of institutions across the museum and heritage sector experimenting with RFID to enhance visitor experience, the case-studies that follow will focus on those being applied to natural history museums and zoological collections.

Case Study 1: NaturePlus at the Natural History Museum, London

The Natural History Museum, London has been exploring the ways in which it can extend its relationship with visitors, to gain greater insight into visitor interests and to enrich and personalise the visitor experience across both the virtual and physical spheres. With the opening of the new Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, the Museum created a personalised visitor experience called NaturePlus that spans both the Darwin Centre and its online site.

Within the Darwin Centre, visitors can bookmark and collect information from eight interactive exhibits using a card with a unique barcode and ID number which they scan on exhibits that are of interest.

Figure 1 A visitor scans a NaturePlus card in the Darwin Centre: http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/barry/barry.html#ixzz31WcpuH6E

Online visitors register their unique IDs to access a personalised website where the information they have bookmarked is saved. Their personalised area also has their particular NaturePlus card with additional information (for full deatils of process see http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/barry/barry.html#ixzz31WcpuH6E ).

Curpanion technology differs from NaturePlus in 3 important ways, differences that also seek to address some of the limitations of the NaturePlus scheme:

  1. We are using RFID technology over a barcode which mean the RFID can be ‘invisible’ and fitted into a more appealing ‘keepsake’ object rather than simply a membership card with an ugly barcode image.

  2. Our interaction (the curpanion object and plinth) is much more playful and appealing for younger visitors than the barcode scanner. Reminiscent of a supermarket scanner, the barcode scanner is a very 'cold' interaction.

  3. Our technology, unlike NaturePlus, is also being designed to apply to already existing collections. It's is also intended to be a flexible system that encourages repeat visits - in that the Curpanion plinth (fitted with the RFID reader) can be moved each couple of months to highlight a 'star specimen' - giving smaller museums the time to make new curatorial content and foster return visits.

Case Study 2: Underwater World, Singapore


Aquarium visitors can identify passing fish tagged with RFID tracking tags.

image: https://www.rfidjournal.com/purchase-access?type=Article&id=9362&r=%2Farticles%2Fview%3F9362%2F4

Underwater World, an oceanic park in Singapore, has been using RFID to create a personalized onsite experiences for visitors. It claims it was the first aquarium to use RFID to help provide a more interactive experience by displaying the name, species and other interesting information about any fish that comes close to an RFID reader placed throughout the exhibits (see image above). Visitors can also adopt similar toy fish by creating names for them and saving the information into the aquarium's database. When visitors place their toy fish within range of the readers, they can see the name and other information pop up on a touch screen display. While RFID has been used to track migration patterns in both water and land animals (e.g. see http://animalmigration.org/RFID/cheapRFID.htm and http://www.greenerideal.com/lifestyle/0403-big-brother-may-be-the-savior-of-life-on-earth/ ), the museum claims this is the first time the technology is being used to send information about captive animals to researchers as well as visitors. This type of application of RFID demonstrates its potential in connecting visitors with the research being done ‘behind-the-scenes’ at zoological institutions as well as aiding the research process of those scientists and researcher working at such institutions.

Case Study 3: Tagged X at the Museum of Natural History, Aarhus

‘TaggedX’ was a project launched by Museum of Natural History, in Aarhus, Denmark, in conjunction with the tech firms Innovation Lab and Cordura.


To enable the real-time delivery of information for an exhibition entitled “Flying”, the project’s team mounted an RFID tag next to each of the exhibit’s 50 stuffed birds. Embedded with an I-Code RFID chip from Philips Semiconductors, each tag contained a unique factory-programmed serial number that was associated with text, quizzes, and audio and video clips—all stored in a central database—about the bird to which the tag was paired. The museum then loaned visitors a PDA equipped with an RFID reader through which they could scan each bird and access the associated content and games. In this way the PDA acted as an exhibition ‘guide’ or interactive learning tool which departs additional interpretation and content about each of the specimens. While this is certainly an interesting case study, the obvious negative is the the PDA’s are heavy and can only be loaned out to visitors which means there is no possibility of post-museum interactivity.  

Case-Study 4: The 'Conservation Lab' at the Bishop Museum


Images: http://bbinet.com/index.php/portfolio/museums/bishop-conservation/


The 'Conservation Lab' at the Bishop Museum, Hawai’i uses RFID more imaginatively than the previous examples, enabling visitors to interact with physical objects on an interactive screen. The design team from BBI Engineering developed software and hardware using RFID and IR imaging to create a novel hands-on interaction whereby a visitor can pick up a resin cast “puck” that has both a specimen and RFID tag embedded in it, which when placed on the interactive screen locates and recognises the ‘tag’ (or specimen) and related content appears. For example, in one of the designed interactions visitors can place the specimen “puck” on the screen and an image appears showing what that particular specimen looks like under a scanning electron microscope. In another interaction, visitors can use the “puck’ to answer questions in a quiz by placing the puck on the correct circle.  The idea of being able to interact with physical objects on a projected background or interactive screen has almost unlimited applications and is something being considered for future iterations of the curpanion technology. For more on this project see: http://bbinet.com/index.php/portfolio/museums/bishop-conservation/

Issues Relating to the use of RFID in Museums and Galleries for Visitor Experience

RFID tags do suffer from negative media hype and public perception, which is something we are trying to counter through the design of the curpanion RFID embedded-object and sensor unit/plinth. For example, RFID tags fitted to the user as wristbands or paper tags are negatively associated with ID bands and thus tracking and surveillance. By embedding the RFID technology in an object that doesn’t have to be attached to the users’ body and that can be used to trigger an interaction by placing it on a plinth or interactive screen we hope that the technology and prototypes we are developing will go a long way to overcome the shortcomings and negative user-associations of traditional RFID tags and scanners/sensors (see following images for examples).  

RFID tags as adopted by the Tech Museum

Image: RFID-embedded wrist-tag at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Visitors were be handed an RFID-embedded wrist-tag that they waved over an exhibit and were then emailed with more information, or results and scores from gallery games.


Image: http://blog.undercovertourist.com/2014/01/disney-world-rfid-tickets-fastpass-plus/

Disney’s ‘MagicBands’ and RF cards allow visitors to touch to enter Disney Resort hotel rooms and the Walt Disney World parks, make purchases at select locations, and access the FastPass+ attractions.



NaturePlus card and scanner interaction at the Darwin Centre, NHM. Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/48002122@N03/sets/72157624783744921/   


In these visitor experience use-contexts RFID tags and scanners function like passive payment systems rather than novel interactions in themselves. This is a design problem we are seeking to address in our prototype and will be the focus of our next blog.


Merle and Andy