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QR codes are experiencing a resurgence but how can they benefit museums?

QR codes, or quick response codes, are now seeing a massive surge in their use, partly as a result of the pandemic.

Used as a touchless system to display information, show menus and ways to purchase as well as in contact tracing and lateral flow tests, they are now part of everyday life.

Their adaptability and functionality have been noted by museums, too and have been used to activate digital guides and audio for exhibitions as well as ticketing.

The big change in QR Codes’ popularity is that smartphones are now equipped with native scanning capabilities through the device’s camera. Previously a mandatory app was required for people to scan a QR Code, which was a big turn off.

Linked to pandemic

For many of us, this adoption of QR codes is tightly linked to the pandemic and a study by Statista in September 2020 found that nearly half of consumers in the US and UK agreed or strongly agreed that they had noticed an increase of QR code use since the beginning of COVID-19.

And how many times have you scanned a QR code this week? Maybe once? Maybe once a day? Or more? In a further study in July 2021 Statista found that nearly 32% of their US and UK respondents had used the codes in the past week.

How are QR codes being used in museums?

The Whitney used QR codes as another option to access its digital guide

Perhaps the most obvious use for QR codes in museums is in interpretation, and this is an approach that museums have been experimenting with for some time.

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery for example, tested several approaches in 2018 with some interesting results. For its Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences exhibition, audio was provided by QR code that was facilitated by the front of house team and the six audio files (there was one with each tapestry on display) had 5,520 listens altogether over the course of the exhibition (March – June), over 900 each on average.

At the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York they investigated the use of QR codes in 2019 to provide access to a new mobile guide. During their test period, 1/5 of visitors accessed the guide via QR code – that’s nearly 12,000 sessions.

Multi-sensory exhibition

More recently Smartify have used QR codes to great effect in museums including the Van Abbemusuem in the Netherlands for its multi-sensory exhibition Delinking and Relinking in 2021.

QR codes give straight access to the tours’ platform on Smartify, which is used to deliver different perspectives on the collection. There are five tours including a family tour, colonial history tour and amulti-sensory trail that includes tangible objects, scent cards and musical compositions

Museums are also using QR codes as a way to facilitate their AR projects. Jorvik Viking Centre’s 24-hour city centre display, the Smithsonian’s Open Access Commissions, and the National Gallery’s My Little Pony portraits, have all recently used QR codes as a mechanism for accessing Augmented Reality content.

Contact-free evaluation

The My Little Pony Magical Gallery used QR codes to activate AR portraits at the National Gallery

QR codes offer opportunities for contact-free evaluation. For the Arctic exhibition at The British Museum, visitors could give feedback via automated emails or by QR codes. These codes in the exhibition space gave more opportunities to comment and included those who had opted out of email. While the automated email invitations were successful (with a 14% response rate) the QR codes boosted the sample size by 18%.

There’s also great potential to use QR codes to facilitate fundraising – the Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn, for example, are accepting crypto donations with a simple QR code enabled process.

Why are QR codes growing in popularity now?

QR codes have been around for more than 25 years. They were invented by the Japanese automotive manufacturer Denso Wave in 1994 (the same year that the Playstation was invented). The little black and white squares were used to track inventory and they enabled quick scanning, held more information than a standard barcode (over 4,000 characters compared to around 20 for a linear barcode), could be scanned at an angle thanks to the three corner squares as a locator and could be read even if damaged.

QR codes are straightforward to create – it’s easy to use a QR generator to make either a fixed code for data like a phone number, or a dynamic code for information like a URL – and organisations quickly saw the potential.

So, why didn’t they become widespread more quickly?

‘”Part of the reason QR didn’t seem to catch on back around 2010, when it was first starting to be widely used, was the high barrier to entry,” says Blue Bite, the world’s leading connected products platform. “Not that many people had smartphones, and those that did often had to download a third-party app to read the codes.”

In 2017, QR code readers were built into Android and Apple software updates, and by 2020 ‘91% of active iOS users have access to in-built QR code scanners, eliminating the need for a separate app, and by 2022 one billion smartphones will have access to QR codes globally research by Fintech Futures suggests.

If we look to China, its use of QR codes for payments was spurred on by WeChat Pay and Alipay. Back in 2016, ‘$1.65 trillion of transactions used the codes’, according to CNN. That was one third of mobile payments made in the country that year.

And China led the way in using QR codes in their pandemic response and this approach was rolled out by governments around the world.

Now, QR codes are embedded into our habits and can be branded and customised, updated and tracked – and have become valuable devices for marketing.

Plan with QR codes in mind

The collision of QR enabled smartphones being widely available and accelerating adoption caused by the pandemic makes this an ideal moment to experiment with QR codes. They are cheap, easy, and flexible – but require planning and testing to achieve the best results.

“We do have to be careful about how we’re using them,” said Sarah-Jane Harknett  Outreach Organiser, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Visitor Engagement Project Coordinator, University of Cambridge Museums at DataFest 2021.

“There’s a temptation to use these to link to the website where we just dump all data that didn’t make it onto the label. In previous tracking and surveys that we’ve done in UCM, we can see that we need to make sure that we’re not just using technology as a place to put everything that didn’t make the cut without careful curation, and looking after that data.”

QR codes look set to be a part of the new normal and offer the potential for museums to reduce contact points and enrich engagement – and so making the visitor experience easier and more joyful.

It’s taken more than 25 years, but they have now become a part of an essential tech toolkit for digital communications.

Want to know the latest thinking on the digital side of museums? Join us for the MuseumNext Digital Summit.

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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