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.

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?’


Scott Billings is a freelance journalist who write for publications including Design Week, Museum Practise, Museums Journal and Marketing.


18 Responses to “QR codes and museums”

  1. [...] ran across this article on MuseumNext’s blog. It focuses on the potential of using QR (quick response) codes in [...]

  2. david coxon says:

    QR codes are becoming increasingly popular in museums and art galleries, but the problems they create and not only with technology complying with the law as far as providing free wifi can be tricky, there’s also the question of a one size fits all solution versus a more confusing range of codes catering for different levels of knowledge, and do you provide visually rich information that may not work on all phones or something simpler that will work on a wider range of handsets and do you tag every item in the space or just key objects.

    Then comes the wider subject of using devices at all, how does using a device is a curated space work? does it change the atmosphere of the room , does in change the relationship with an object or detract from engaging in conversation with gallery/museum staff, does the way people move in the space change and do people want this level of information in the space or later when they get home.

    Some real interesting schemes i have seen include i museum that used qr codes that gave there objects voices, so when you looked up a qr code on an object the response was that object introducing itself as if it were a person, saying where it was from, where and when it was born and so on. Another good example was a hand out printed with qr codes like a menu so when you got home you could learn more about the things you’d seen. And finally a set of qr codes on lift signs that let you see what is on each floor and get a flavour of the exhibits so you can choose which to visit if you only have time for one.

  3. The EXPLORA Science Center in Frankfurt (Germany) is using QR Codes in their exhibition, outside of the building (Largest QR Code in Europe with 5×5 Meter) and on their advertisement papers as well. It’s a great tool to foster usage of social media and get people interested in technology.

    Some pictures you can find here:










  4. Our museum, the MAS in Antwerp, uses QRs everywhere in the museum. We have a QR code for each group of 10 to 15 objects. When scanned, the link goes to our database where a translation of each label is provided in English, French, German en Spanish (in Belgium, we are obliged to provide each text in several languages). In the exposition itself, we only provide the texts in Dutch. Visitors can scan the QRs with their own smartphone (downstairs near the entrance, we show a quick movie that explains how to install a QR reader and how to use it) or (starting from October) can lend an iPod. When using this iPod, visitors can also link a object they link to their Twitter and Facebook. We plan to do more with our QR system in the future, such as ‘labelling’ the object with an appreciation or emotion, and make personalised tours with these labels.
    We would also love the QRs to give the objects ‘a voice’, or ensure a dialogue between visitor and object – but that’s long-term-planning and of course dependent of financial possibilities.

    That being said, there are quite some difficulties with these QR’s. First of all, the lightning has to be really good: if someone is standing in his/her own shadow, it becomes very difficult, not to say impossible, to scan the QR. Same goes for QRs on spots that have little light. We do provide free WIFI in the MAS, but it was and is a challenge to have the same excellent reception everywhere. Visitors are quite eager to pick up the possibilities of QR: the movie downstairs is of course the most important introduction, but the guards in each room of the museum also know how the QRs work and are happy to explain this to visitors.

    Then, of course, there is the database that holds all the translations. Since this database is not our scientific database, we had to copy and paste all the information of all the nearly 3000 objects in five languages into the new database, as well as all the pictures. This was and is the main challenge for our staff. Since the exhibition shows the objects often in groups or sets that are not as such registered in our scientific database, where every object is one entry, completing the new database required loads of work from curators and registrators.

    All in all, I think QRs offer many possibilities for museums, but museum staff should be aware of the many demands this sytem requires.

  5. Andy Fenton says:

    I think this burgeoning technology is on the threshhold of becoming as big a part of our lives as barcodes; we almost don’t see them they are so ubiquitous.
    It behoves us to find the “right way” to print/show them. Why not project or have small screens (eg backlit) in galleries that can have the QR codes changed as the exhibitions change the QR codes so the devices can read them easily.

    Moreover we must have sensible data at the other end of the link so that informative AND ORGANISED data is displayed in a sensible format when someone uses their App. Eg as well as the catalogue or marketing info displayed for a mobile device, does the display facilitate easy nav between catalogue, general data and perhaps user-contributed data in a handy way – to cater for all tastes. The database if too large should facilitate linking to individual item entry – not “find me in a list of dozens”!

    Great post Scott

  6. glynispowell says:

    all good useful information thanks folks… we’re working in the west midlands on sharing ideas and expertise across museums a lot. heres one event (something wiki this way comes) where we’re building up a few projects for small museums in conjunction with the big guys… its lead by the MDOs (museum development officers) in the region. you’re welcome to come along and watch or share..

  7. Roger Bamkin says:

    Well hello. I think I might have some info of interest here. Wikimedia UK (the people who run Wikipedia) and Derby Museums went into a collaboration this year and we started to focus on QR code technology. We invented a new technolgy called QRpedia.org. We have been running a crowd sourcing project called “The Wright Challenge” which has supplied over 1,000 translations, new and improved articles since 1st May. The contest runs until 27th September. The prizes will be awarded on 3rd September at 10 a.m. UK time live on the net. We think we have the first museum that you can tour in Alemannisch, Belerusian(x2), Catalan/Czech, Danish, Esperanto, Finnish/French, Gallatian, Hebrew, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Latvia, Malaysian, N ….

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:GLAM/Derby/Multilingual_Challenge/Participants but look around to see if you can find the map of the world showing our 50 e-volunteers

    The contest finishes in one week. Are you going to be on the map?

    Surprisingly we have had little interest from the museum press … I have seen the Edinburgh codes Tales of Things and the QRater work and we were aware of the (too?) early work at Powerhouse. This is not just about QR code gee whiz, its about language support, cultural outreach, community input and global reach. (Yes I am pretty keen on this idea)

  8. After scanning all these codes it is nice to have tracking statistics and analytics, so the museum can analyse which artworks people scan the most, when, how (which device), etc… We wrote a little bit here: http://qrcode.good-survey.com/qr-code-platform-features

  9. iBeaken is using it’s own iB-code, QR code and NFC to bring information to the visitors. We have successfully equipped different expos and museums…

    But that is only the easy part : our aim is to attract people to your museum through codes and information. It is simply not enough to put up some information on the mobile internet, you need that information to work as a marketing and engagement tool towards visitors…

  10. Joy says:

    This is a really helpful post, informative – outlining some of the challenges with lots of helpful examples – thanks Jim! Follow up suggestions from members are also helpful, such as Andy’s idea of installing backlit screens.

    I came across an interesting movie on YouTube which looks at how a well known supermarket, increased customers, without increasing the number of stores. Their solution was to use QR codes! The big idea was to change customers ‘waiting time into shopping time’. Why can’t museums change waiting time into learning time? Might this also be one way of exposing more of our collections? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7HnR02kJxY

  11. [...] article was written for MuseumNext, 14 August [...]

  12. [...] QR codes to help its visitors find maps of the sanctuary. (See more expamples in the comments on this MuseumNext page.) Last year, NYC’s central park has a display of QR codes. Here’s a 4 minute promo [...]

  13. Lynda Kelly says:

    Nice post, but curious to see how many visitors actually use them and understand what they are? Our preliminary research showed that only 15% of those surveyed had used a QR code and 57% did not know what they were. More here: http://australianmuseum.net.au/BlogPost/Web-2U/QR-Codes-in-2011

  14. Eric Longo says:

    Sorry for the late response. MoMA’s current exhibition called “Talk to Me” (http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2011/talktome/), which explores the communication between people and things, features QR codes on every wall labels in the show. Use of mobile technologies is encouraged and promoted in the galleries. It is on view through Nov 7.

  15. Jan says:

    QR codes,
    my experience is that very few people now what they are and it’s complex to scan at each object.
    It’s just a way of getting access to a mobile website. Not more not less. There are many other ways of achieving this goal and getting the statistics.
    Problem, very often the content is very poor and the website not adapted at all to mobile.
    Also dialing a nr is probably much more easy then scanning a code.

    What is far more interesting is the use of wifi networks in museum and gallery spaces and make you’re websites and content accessible for mobile devices.

    It could save museums massive investments on hardware in the future.
    But still for the moment only few visitors will use a smartphone to browse information upon collections.
    Statistics also show time and time again that people do not use these kind op applications for a long time period. They use applications to find news, practical info, places.

    Going to a museum is for most visitors not a technology trip.
    It’s a place they go to enjoy, relax, contemplate.

    So what shoud a museum do?
    I believe in the future of mobile technology and we’re investing hard in it but it should be only one of the may aspects of a museum’s content strategy.

    Strangly enough you can also relark that despite all technology changes visitors are looking more then ever for that little quality guide on paper that they can take home after their visit.

  16. Eric Baird says:

    QR codes can also be useful when space is so tight that there’s no room for conventional labelling or display plaques.

    A QR code that links to a webpage may not be an ideal way to label an exhibit, but it’s often better than nothing at all.

  17. [...] about QR codes use in the museums sector  for quite some time now (Museum 2.0 by Nina Simon, Scott Billing @museumnext blog,Shelley Bernstein @BrooklynMuseum and many [...]

  18. [...] Moblists, Museum Next, and Collections Spotlight from the National Trust blogs provide some great case studies on museums [...]