QR Codes Make History Come Alive

National GalleryWhen I visit museums around the world, I almost always purchase an audio guide for a more in-depth tour of the exhibits.

The Picasso Museum in Barcelona, the Louvre in Paris, and the Acropolis in Athens all provide supplemental resources in some form or other. In fact, most major museums provide this service, and podcasts are often available through iTunes, which can be downloaded pre-visit and accessed at the site itself.

However, even audio tours can’t cover it all; generally they focus on major works or the life of a featured artist. In the past few years, some museums have embraced QR codes as a way to give visitors more detailed history on specific pieces. The way it is being done, however, may surprise you.

I assumed that QR-coded museum pieces would lead to videos of the curator giving historical background. But the Brooklyn Museum experienced five to ten-fold drops in traffic when implementing QR codes linked to its online collections database, poems created by community members, or a mobile game called Gallery Tag!.

Taking a cue from the Indiana Children’s Museum, Shelley Bernstein, the Chief of Technology for the Brooklyn Museum, decided to experiment with QR codes linked to Wikipedia. The Indy Children’s Museum uses QRPedia codes, which are QR codes that recognize the preferred language of the scanning device and deliver a Wikipedia article to that device in the preferred language, if it exists. If it does not exist, the scanning device is prompted to offer the article in a variety of languages or via a Google translation. The Fundació Joan Miró in Spain also uses this technology.

Bernstein wondered if the familiarity of Wikipedia would help ease the transition to the newer technology of QR codes for museumgoers. In April of this year, the Brooklyn Museum began a trial program called WikiLink, pairing Wikipedia articles with QR codes on objects in two galleries: the Connecting Cultures exhibition and the Egyptian and Near East galleries. Curators have selected Wikipedia articles that are relevant to certain works of art, and then vetted the articles to ensure they meet the scientific standards of the museum’s interpretive tradition.

So, what does this mean for museums? QR codes are a relatively simple, inexpensive mode of delivering information to visitors. Largely, the widespread use of QR codes for this type of education will depend on the usage statistics in pilot programs like the Brooklyn Museum’s WikiLinks. But, QR code adoption in museums may broaden the spectrum of information readily available while perusing exhibits, and not just the most famous.

QR codes as learning aids also sprang up in Springfield, Illinois this summer. The city sits in the heart of the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, and hosts an annual History Comes Alive program. The living history program features reenactments and actors portraying Lincoln himself, as well as his friends and neighbors.

This year, the program is running all summer, June 8th through Labor Day weekend, four weeks longer than in previous years. With the plethora of events around town, mobile information and schedules for this year’s History Comes Alive program have been made accessible through QR codes. Cards with the QR code have been distributed at Lincoln sites and other locations throughout Springfield.

As with the museum pilot programs, it will be interesting to see if the use of QR codes is expanded in coming years. For example, scan-able codes could deliver more than the daily schedule, perhaps even enhancing the reenactment experiences with supplemental video or other historical information.

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