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QR codes and museums

The Internet of Things is a compelling idea, with its promise of a seamless link between objects in the physical world and associated media in the online world. The implications could be profound: an object will cease to be an isolated entity, but will become the focal point in a web of connected information. Take your dining table as an example. If the table carried a small identifying tag that linked to a central online database of ‘things’, reading the tag would open up the contents of this database revealing, perhaps, the table’s history; the manufacturer’s specifications and the materials used to construct it; its previous owners; the video of a family cat stealing food from a plate left on its top; the written memory of someone who as a child fell into its corner and broke a tooth – and so on.

All that is required to link this digital media – photographs, text, videos or sounds – to a real object is an identifier that can be read by an internet-connected device. One such system, developed in Japan as long ago as 1994, is the QR code. QR stands for Quick Response and the code itself is a square grid of black and white blocks, roughly equivalent to the barcode found on product packaging. But unlike a barcode, which links a product to a retailer’s stock database, a QR code links with a web page or some other online content. These codes are then read by the camera and QR reader software on a mobile phone or similar internet-connected device, allowing the device to open the link.

qr codes in museums

The appeal to museums of QR codes – and an internet of things – is immediately obvious: digital media can be ‘attached’ to physical objects by means of the small printout of a square code. Although QR codes themselves are essentially just web-address links, when connected to an online database of objects their possibilities become quite powerful. An object in the real world – a museum specimen – can be permanently linked with a growing and editable repository of online material, revealed to visitors through their smartphones or similar devices.

An early, beta version of such a system has been developed by the TOTem research consortium of Brunel University, University College London, University of Dundee, University of Edinburgh and the University of Salford. Tales of Things is a free QR based system that links an object with its ‘tales’ – media left by users who have something to say about the object in question. Tales of Things is being used on objects in the Tales of a Changing Nation gallery at the National Museum of Scotland, as well as in the QRator co-creation project at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology and The Petrie Museum of Egyptology.

‘Whilst there are a lot of QR code readers about and websites where you can generate codes to link to other sites, with the Tales of Things app the key element is the ability to add your own tale to the QR code, so that you are not just reading information but also writing back,’ says Jane MacDonald, administrator of TOTem.

In an age where co-creation and sharing – two tenets of any forward-looking museum – are all the rage, this type of system should be a sure fire hit. It permits people to record their personal reflections on museum objects and ‘attaches’ these reflections to the objects for others to see and respond to in turn. Certainly, Alison Taubman, principal curator of communications at National Museums Scotland, sees potential for QR codes to open up a new type of dialogue with museum visitors, breaking from the ‘usual one way traffic of information’. But she also acknowledges that such two-way dialogue has so far been scant in the Tales of a Changing Nation project.

It seems that despite the appeal, museums are finding that general take-up of QR codes is bedevilled by a few technological restrictions in implementation and, perhaps more significantly, a general lack of awareness. ‘I am not sure if enough people know what a QR code is or have their own device [to read one] for it to have mass appeal at this stage,’ says MacDonald. ‘We are expecting this to come, as they are slowly becoming more common. The more that museums and visitor attractions use QR codes, the more people will interact with them. I really see them as a brilliant way for museums to be able to create a truly democratic and interactive experience for visitors.’

Kathleen Tinworth, director of visitor research and program evaluation at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, presented a small number of visitors with a QR code to find out how many people could identify or explain it. Barely a third could and none of those had ever used one.

‘For those who didn’t recognize the QR code, we got responses that ranged from ‘Native American design’ to ‘puzzle’,’ says Tinworth. ‘So what does this mean for using QR or other identification software in museums and culturals? Is it futile? Worthless? Nope. Not at all. We may need to lay some groundwork with visitors, but the pay-off could be high. In time, perhaps there won’t be a need for an app download or a certain type of phone [to be used], but for now the learning curve may need to be built in to the design.’

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia has also experimented with QR codes. After finding that too few people had a suitable reader installed on their phones, the museum decided to build a reader into a bespoke mobile application that would serve as an object database and QR code reader in one. This app now supports the museum’s Love Lace exhibition by allowing visitors to access an object’s catalogue entry directly by scanning the QR code on the physical display.

But even this simple system hides technological pitfalls. If the code squares are printed too small, phone cameras and reader software have trouble understanding them. If there are shadows, reflections or poor light on the codes the problem is compounded, as the Powerhouse discovered in earlier QR experiments. The provision of free public Wi-Fi throughout a museum space is another potential difficulty.

On the other hand, despite these relatively small technical issues QR codes are extremely straightforward to produce and equally easy to access assuming a visitor has a phone reader installed and there is a good (and ideally free) internet connection available in the exhibition space.

But as with the introduction of any technology to a museum or gallery, there have to be clear benefits to both visitors and museum departments of using QR codes. While the actual act of using a phone to ‘magically’ read a code may appeal to some (it does: to younger visitors to the Tales of a Changing Nation exhibition, according to Taubman), it is what the code is linking to that is the real issue. Even without referencing a co-created database of ‘things’, there are still plenty of appealing uses of QR codes for museums. They can provide quick and immediate links to material that supports interpretation, education or a marketing campaign, for example.

But as Tinworth notes, getting the content of these links right is vital, whether they are to third party sites or to material generated by a museum itself. ‘The QR code is just a vehicle,’ she says. ‘I believe that for QRs or similar technologies to succeed in museums we have to ensure they provide something of value and aren’t just gimmicky. Whether that’s the back story on an object or a video of an artist installing a sculpture is neither here nor there; it’s about the value added through that content. QR codes are simple to make and inexpensive, which has massive appeal to the cultural sector, [but] are we enhancing the visitor experience in the ways people want?’

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