Museums Bring QR Codes Into Play
[The text of this post first appeared in my article, 'Museums Bring QR Codes Into Play,' published in MUSE, vol. XXX, no. 4, pp. 34-37, July 2012.]
As technology continues to rapidly change the way we communicate with one another, it also continues to evolve. Today there are several means for museums to communicate with their public; among the newest, easiest and most versatile is the QR code.
What is a OR Code?
A QR code is a graphic image. Each one looks like a random array of black and white squares, a sort of warped checkerboard, grouped in a small frame. Much like the linear bar codes that we are more familiar with, QR codes contain information, text or numbers that have been made into a graphic. Similar to the bar code, each QR code can be scanned and decoded. Today this decoding process can be done by any individual owning a smartphone with a reader application, often referred to as an “app”.
The initials “QR” stand for Quick Response. If the QR graphic encodes a web address, the smartphone app decodes the message quickly, activating the phone’s browser and retrieving the web page within moments. The user has immediate access to any electronic media that has been encoded. The most obvious reason for a museum to leverage QR code technology is to enhance the visitor experience.
Museums Already on Board
Although some of us are unfamiliar with QR codes, they can be found everywhere, even in museums and galleries. Any museum can develop their own QR code guided tour for exhibitions, galleries, or the whole museum by using this simple and affordable technology. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is already using QR codes on the construction site. They decided to incorporate the codes around the perimeter of the site as a way of offering descriptions to what pedestrians see as they walk past the building. Visitors can “scan-to-learn” about the building process and about architect Antoine Predock’s vision of a building swirling upward to the clouds. There are five stops in total. The content, available in both English and French, is also on their website for remote audiences. The information about the construction site is being used as a test run for a potential QR code tour of the museum. “Visitor response to date has been very positive,” said Corey Timpson, director of design, new media and collections at the CMHR. “The initiative has been picked up by the local media as there is high local interest in the building’s unique design, its complex construction, and the diversity of materials being used.”
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C. currently has 14 QR codes posted in its Ocean Hall. By using the codes, visitors with smartphones can view related pages from the NMNH’s website Ocean Portal directly on their phones. Other museum users include the Mattress Factory Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in the U.S., the Derby Museum and Gallery in the U.K., and the Powerhouse Museum in Australia. These organizations have realized that communication with the public is rapidly changing and are adapting to common visitor practices.
Last October, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) opened an exhibition featuring David Hockney’s digital paintings. They placed a QR code which gave smartphone users access to download a free full-colour Hockney digital original to use as a cell phone wallpaper. The QR code was printed in their programs and events printed guide entitled let’s ROM. It also appeared at the entrance of the exhibition and the ROM made five more Hockneys available during the course of the exhibition. Dr. Julian Siggers, vice president of programs and content communication at the ROM, says: “We will indeed be using QR codes in upcoming major exhibitions and in some of our permanent galleries. We are currently working on this as part of a new digital strategic plan for the museum.” In addition, the Association of Nova Scotia Museums has worked in partnership with the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), to prepare a how-to guide for using QR codes in museums.
QR codes give museums the opportunity to build anticipation and engage the public in new ways. The National Museum of Scotland (NMS) is using them to gather visitor contributions for a social history project. They have posted QR codes on over 70 objects in one gallery. When visitors scan a code they receive enhanced multimedia information content and are invited to record their own comments on the artefact. Alison Taubman, the principal curator of communications at NMS, is quoted in the Guardian newspaper of Edinburgh, saying “[this] project is a great example of how museums can not only give visitors more information about objects and stories, but also involve [them] by adding their own responses to the objects, whether personal reflections or additional resources, to let others find out even more.”
QR Codes: the Possibilities
These tiny graphics are so versatile they can be used in a variety of ways, limited only by the user’s smartphone and the creator’s imagination. Temporary QR code labels in a gallery can mark specific objects as stations in a treasure hunt. When each station is reached, the QR code offers information about the object and gives clues on reaching the next station. Prizes can be a product or service, or a donation from a co-sponsorship partner, such as free admission to a sister cultural attraction. The flexibility of QR codes gives visitors the opportunity to provide instant feedback on exhibitions. Their feedback can be moderated and incorporated into the museum’s website. Visitors can provide input and respond to what other visitors are saying, thereby creating a forum for discussions. This approach connects museum visitors to each other and builds a community. If your institution uses social media to engage audiences, instant access from a smartphone will broaden your horizons. QR codes can offer a quick way to bring a new “Friend” in to “Like” your museum’s Facebook page.
Quick response codes in print materials can drive more traffic to a museum’s website. This is exactly what happened for the ROM as a result of the Hockney advertisement. Print and TV advertisements often display URLs and trying to remember them or write them down can be challenging. Viewers will be more inclined to scan the code out of curiosity if each of those print links were replaced by a Quick Response graphic; the code can link to anything.
Quick Response codes in collections and exhibitions can be used to connect to books and reproductions in the museum gift shop, or vice versa. If an artefact is linked to the gift shop, visitors might be more likely to buy items related to their experience. They will know exactly what they are looking for without needing to spend extra time trying to find the right gift item. There is no limit to what these codes can accomplish once the system is set up.
Strategically placed QR codes could link to “you-are-here” maps. A code could cross-link from an iron stove in the kitchen of an historic home to a stack of firewood beside the back door. A code could open a video showing the use of various fuels for winter heating. Using relevant cross-links, visitors can choose their own meaningful path through the museum and create their own learning experience.
It is also possible to use cross-linking on a larger scale. Hyperlinking, which is the ability to jump instantly from one concept to another, is the most powerful asset on the World Wide Web. The judicious use of QR codes can turn a museum or historic village visit into an experience in hyper-reality. This type of experience puts the visitor in touch with the subject matter in a different way than a museum curator or educator might. A name has already been coined for this type of experience — augmented reality. This term signifies the extension of real-world experience through additional sensory input such as sights, sounds and concepts which excite the imagination and expand perception.
Fortunately it is remarkably inexpensive to get started with QR codes. They are also substantially less expensive to maintain than any number of current technologies. A QR code is easily handled by designers and effortlessly integrated into the work flow of label production. The software for creating the codes is widely available on the Internet and mostly free.
Coded links to the web can prove useful in researching your public; every time a museum visitor is directed to a page on your website, you can use web server data or special services like Google Analytics to track the activity. This visitor research data can indicate which codes are used most frequently and which displays in the galleries are most popular.
The best way for any museum to decide whether to try QR code technology is to carry out an environmental scan. How popular is this technology now? How popular is it going to be? Which age groups are using it? Many students on group tours are already using their smartphones. Why not leverage the use of this technology in museum galleries to bring the excitement back to the objects on display?
Using QR codes in museums can help change popular perceptions and engage tech-savvy visitors. Some place-based apps like FourSquare and Instagram are already extremely popular with smartphone users. Other applications with a specific museum focus like SCVNGR, MoblMuseum and Exhibit.ly, are just starting up. Now is the time to take advantage of these applications and technologies. The ROM’s director and CEO, Janet Carding, appears to be impressed by the potential of these technologies in fostering involvement with the museum visitor. “We’ve been hugely helped along by the challenge [that] everybody brings an encyclopedia to the museum in their own pocket.”
QR codes themselves are starting to show up everywhere in our high-tech culture. Once you know what to look for, they become obvious in all kinds of print materials, on products and in public places. “With the penetration of smartphone usage in Canada being as high as it is, we’re confident that QR codes are not a fad and will become a significant marketing tool for Canadian organizations and businesses in the coming years” said Tracy Ruddell, assistant vice president of marketing at the ROM. Considering the low start-up costs, it makes good sense to get involved now, during the early QR code adoption curve.
[For more ideas on how to use QR codes for museums, see my post entitled, 'How Does Your Garden Grow?' This is about using QR codes in a small botanical garden, and after all, what are botanical gardens but living museums?]