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Are QR Codes in Exhibits a Good Idea?



If you’re thinking of including QR codes in an upcoming exhibit as a portal for the students (in the streaker-stroller-student visitor continuum), this post is for you. NC’s own Michael Scott, Curator of Education at the High Point Museum has added comments from his past experience at the NC Museum of History to a fascinating discussion of the QR code issue that appeared on the AAM Registrar’s Committee listserv last week.

The QR codes that we used for the Watergate exhibit saw very low use…the highest usage numbers were for the codes at the edges of the exhibit and very little for the ones inside the exhibit.There [are] also some QR codes outside of the museum for garden plants. One of them had a song attached to it and had received higher use than some of the others, but it was still a low number.

[However,] I still like them. Not a lot of institutions can afford to buy devices or to build an app or to even redesign a full web site to be mobile friendly, but they can still link to a page either on their servers or to something that they have stored elsewhere online. There is a large bar of entry to using them (device, wifi, time, etc…) but I think that just means that whatever you’re wanting to link to needs to be very compelling material. Some information just might not be [attractive] enough for a QR code and not a high enough priority to be in the physical exhibit. Until the use of NFC/RFID becomes more widely used, I see the QR code as really the only tool available to [provide more in-depth information at the point of viewing]. Generally, it think that it’s a matter of finding a balance between content, access, and resources available to an institution. For the same cost (time, money, etc..) as generating a QR code that links it to a video you shoot on a iPhone that’s hosted on Youtube, what other options are there?

Tracey Berg-Fulton, Collections Database Associate & Provenance Researcher at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, is more critical of QRs:

Let me be the anti-QR code curmudgeon here. Think about the last time you scanned a QR code? If you can’t remember, or you don’t have an app to do so, that should tell you something. As an iPhone addict, I haven’t scanned a QR code in…maybe three years? The last time I did it was because I was forced to in order to get the information I needed, and then the connectivity was miserable and the experience was ho-hum. If the institution [which] created this situation had just provided a short URL, I would have just opened my browser and gone there, without having to:

  1. Think about what I’m going to use for QR scanning
  2. Think about where that QR code is going to take me (and is that page safe to look at- nightmare scenariohere)
  3. Decide that yes, I want to take the time to connect to wifi, accept the wifi policy, connect, scan, go to the site, and then dig for whatever it is I’m looking for.
  4. Do all of the above.

QR codes work brilliantly for machines. They’re designed for machines to read quickly. Their applications for humans are, in my personal opinion, small. There’s a lot of maintenance that goes in to making them, a lot of vigilance needed to maintain good links to content, not to mention the creation of the content itself, and the hurdles of bad wifi- particularly if your building is a granite or marble bunker. Let’s add to that the hurdles of privileging content to those who have access to smartphones, and are savvy enough to understand the “scan QR code, get info” mechanics (of course, having on-campus devices to loan helps lower that barrier, but there’s another thing you need to maintain and track and charge, and train non-native users on how to get the content from the QR code).

Tracey suggests creating a web site with additional content and including a shortened URL on the exhibit labels.

You can also use an app to do this if you have one, but that requires a lot of hoops with iOS/android development, and again pushes out those edge cases. A responsive web site works on any device (tablet, phone, laptop, desktop) and can give more people more access (and provide loaner devices to get more people more access). Thus ends my rather long winded treatise against QR codes.

Nathan Stalvey, Director of the Clarke County Historical Association in Berryville, VA, reported mixed results when testing the effectiveness of QRs at the Louisville Slugger Museum.


  • Tracking numbers:  “QR codes let you see what people are the most interested in, which objects draw more attention, where people are coming from and what devices they are using.”
  • Shortening label text:  “Studies have shown that beyond a certain word count, people move on.  ([Microsoft] recently did a study that shows the average human attention span is now 8 seconds, one second less than a goldfish and four seconds less than five years ago).”


  • Lack of meaningful insights: “What kind of people use their devices for QR scans?  Does it really identify what you want to know about your audience?”
  • Logistical problems: “If the QR code is too small, people will lose interest if it is difficult to scan.  If it is too large, it can be distracting.  You would have to find a balance.  Too many QR codes in an exhibit can be overwhelming.”

In the end, Stalvey’s museum gave up on QR codes, in reaction to the low proportion of users to visitors. Tablets that the museum provided were more effective. “The app was built with layers and did not need a wireless connection.  It was incredibly time consuming for IT to put together, but it was rare to NOT see people using those devices.  We also had them locked so that was the only thing people could access.”

Has your institution experimented with QR codes? When was the last time you used one?


Customized Engagement

What connects individuals to artifacts? The answer is often deeply personal, and while it’s possible for museum audience evaluators to trace clear patterns, the connection is often idiosyncratic. A new model of group tour and the internet itself can embrace the individualization of artifact engagement. Check out the following models at major museums—the Metropolitan in New York and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The much smaller, less well funded museums we work with here in NC may not be able to support the platforms in these examples, but the ideas of customization and engagement can be translated to both history collections as well as to smaller venues. [For example, at left, participants in a Delta Sigma Theta reception at the Greensboro Historical Museum look closely and discuss artifacts in a case related to their organization.]

If you haven’t yet heard of Museum Hack (or even if you have) this TEDx video is a good introduction to the company’s why and how. The founder never liked museums and didn’t bother attending them until a friend gave him a personal tour. Once he was able to explore according to his own impulses and share thoughts and impressions individually, he fell in love with museums and began giving tours to his friends, featuring his top 10 objects and stories in the museum. His tours generated a buzz and became so popular that he’s built a business out of small group museum tours with entertainment as the primary goal. If you were to give a “hack”- type tour of your own institution, what objects and stories would you include?

Online artifact images, accompanied by stories, allow users to customize their own learning (or entertainment) paths. Some institutions have been reluctant to share digitized versions of collection items for several reasons. Among them is the fear that putting collections on the internet will be a disincentive for face-to-face visitors. Despite digitizing and sharing most of its artifacts at high quality resolution for free, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has experienced record-breaking attendance in the last year. Could it be that the virtually unlimited access to collections this museum supplies online actually motivates in-person visits? If your institution shares some or all of its collections digitally, can you correlate that to an increase or decrease in visitation?

In your experience, what other methods of customized engagement with collections have been successful?

Satisfying Numen-Seekers

Does the declining visitation to historic houses, villages, battlefields, and other sites over the past few decades reflect the public’s lack of interest in history? Audience research and experimental media during the last decade answer a resounding “NO!” The lesson much of this recent work teaches us, is that visitors want to be a part of the historical experience, either by a transcendental connection with the past or by participating in historical activities to the degree that they can imagine what life was really like in the era a particular site portrays. Our institutions must find better means to supply those ends.

Frontier House  was a 6-episode public television series filmed a decade ago. The format was part reality TV and part documentary. Three families from different regions of the United States went to live in an 1883 Montana homestead settlement and had to adjust to the daily tasks and consumer goods that were typical of the setting. The show was a successful enough for PBS to produce 2 similar subsequent series: Colonial House (portraying 1628) and Texas Ranch House (portraying 1867), and for channels such as DIY to replay the series. The shows remain available on YouTube.

Although only 3 families participated in Frontier House, over 5,500 applied. Research on audience engagement among historic site visitors indicates that the desire to experience the past first hand is widespread. Cultural anthropologists John Gatewood and Catherine Cameron conducted an extensive visitor survey at the Gettysburg National Military Park and published their findings in “Battlefield Pilgrims at Gettysburg National Military Park,” Ethnology, vol. 43 #3 (2004). They handed out over 400 surveys to visitors outside the Park with return stamped envelopes and $1 bills attached to each as “token compensation.” More than 2/3 returned the surveys, yielding 253 responses. These revealed “that a certain portion of visitors want to consume history in a deeper, affective, and personal way [and want] to go back in time and imagine what actors were feeling.” Gatewood and Cameron labeled this impulse “numen-seeking.” (p. 194)

Numen is a term that has gained currency among social scientists in the past several decades and, as Gatewood and Cameron explain, it includes three dimensions:

  1. deep engagement or transcendence, which can involve such concentration that the individual loses a sense of time passing or may have a flow experience
  2.  empathy, a strongly affective experience in which the individual tries to conjure the thoughts, feelings, and experiences, including hardships and suffering, of those who lived at an earlier time
  3. awe or reverence, an experience of being in the presence of something holy or spiritual communion with something or someone. (p. 208)

Experiencing part of the setting—place—is critical to finding numen. In the Gettysburg study,

Almost a fifth of the respondents responded in a very personal way to the site. In some cases, that translated as a kind of awe that one could be standing on the very spot where the two sides fought so fiercely. Being in the same place as the soldiers and seeing the landscape also brought old history lessons to life or allowed deep empathy and leaps of imagination. Others responded with great reverence for the places where men died and expressed honor for the great sacrifice. This group often used religious language to express their feelings. (pp. 204, 211)

Re-enactors at the Burwell School, Hillsborough

Re-enactors at the Burwell School, Hillsborough

Smaller historic sites will rarely have the budget required to set up authentic historical experiences for visitors to the extent that Frontier House did. However, they can facilitate numen experiences in several ways:

  • The popularity of war re-enactments as hobbies testifies to the pervasiveness of the drive to experience the past. Many re-enacting groups convene at small historic sites for special events and members often like teaching visitors about how they recreate historical accuracy. Why not keep a range of reproduction clothing and other items on hand, partner with a re-enactor group, and let individuals and/ or families in your community apply to be re-enactors for a day?
  • Even if you cannot supply participants with the trappings of a particular period, you can assign each visitor an historical identity to read about and possibly role-play as groups move through the site. This activity could be either a routine aspect of visits or part of a special tour. The process can enhance the group social interaction that is already a typical and important part of historic site visitation and allow the stories the site portrays to be multi-vocal.

What other ideas can you come up with to help satisfy numen-seekers at your institution?

It’s Feedback Time!

It’s a New Year and time to re-evaluate this blog project. We now have 144 followers–more than half from North Carolina and many others with an interest in collections care across the country and even beyond! In addition, several dozen viewers check out our posts via our Facebook page’s automatic feed. We’re thrilled with these numbers, and the positive feedback we’ve received makes the work we put into research, writing, and coaxing guest posters worthwhile.

The blog also fulfills an important role as both a complement and supplement to our workshops. Sometimes we’ve reported on workshops in posts, affording those who are unable to attend the chance to benefit from our instructors’ knowledge. In other posts, we’ve been able to explain preservation materials and methods, and then we can provide links to relevant posts as one component of the workshop resources we provide.

We don’t want to diminish that synergy between posts and workshops, and we want this site to continue to be a resource for preservation tips and for our NC cultural heritage collections network. While we always value your feedback, we’re now seeking your opinion on the issue of posting frequency, specifically.

We will continue to supply a forum for North Carolina collections stories and we will continue to discuss collections care issues, but perhaps it is time for us to insert more pauses into our “collections conversations.” What do you think?

A C2C Badge?

A participant at C2C's 2011Fayetteville workshop made this badge.

A participant at C2C’s 2011 Fayetteville workshop made this badge.

One of the introductory activities we’ve been doing in our “Collections Care Basics” workshops is making badges with small copper sheets, an adhesive pin-back, sharpie pens, and fingerprints. The intended object of this exercise was to send each participant home with a souvenir lesson of the sensitivity of metals to hand oils—a persistent reminder to wear gloves whenever handling metal artifacts.

Badges are currently a hot topic of learning theory and possibly have the potential to challenge standardized learning credentials. Apparently, the C2C badge idea was ahead of its time and could serve, not only as a proper handling reminder, but also as an educational credential.

Recently, the American Alliance of Museums posted a discussion on the potential of badges for museums and described the badge programs of 2 museum organizations—one of which sees value in badges as a means to motivate audience engagement. The AAM post refers to badges both as something 3D, like those participants have produced in our workshops, and as a digital icon that participants receive and could potentially include in a signature (as many professionals now do with degrees or affiliations).

Would a badge from your institution motivate participants to be more engaged with exhibits and programs? Would an actual or digital badge or both be more effective? What types of badges might work? Institutional “Explorer” or local history “Expert” are two possibilities.

Digital badge systems have some demonstrated success as motivators in gaming arenas, in particular, and 3D merit badges have long been a part of activities like scouting. Less certain is the potential use of badges as signifiers of skill or educational credentials. If many organizations (like museums and C2C) offer badges as awards to participants for learning accomplishments, would the available multiplicity allow individual badges to have any meaning or would the quantity a person could accumulate generate the most credit?

Our organization could start offering “Collections Concepts Mastery” badges and “Disaster Preparedness” badges for participation and even distinctive ones for demonstrated skills and achievements in those areas. As a potential or actual C2C participant, would these be motivational? Would seeing this type of digital badge in an acquaintance’s email signature line heighten your respect for that person in any way? In other words, would a digital C2C badge serve as a meaningful professional credential?

To Show or Not To Show?

ConfederateCoatConfederate General Patrick Cleburne’s frock coat is currently on exhibit at the Museum of the Confederacy’s new Appomattox branch, which opened in March 2012. Some visitors, like the one who posted this photo to a Facebook community page last month, assumed that the Museum of the Confederacy was exhibiting the frock coat as the garment Cleburne was wearing when he died at the Battle of Franklin (outside Nashville, Tennessee) on November 30, 1864. The damage, then, made sense as a result of exploding shells.

Another Facebook poster commented, “this worn tattered coat sends chills down your back, if you arent a true gray southerner, this pic proably does nothing to you, my great grandfather fought with the macon county guards..james o. dixon, there is something deep inside that when you look at this pic it touches you, and i can see how when the brave confederates saw such horror, it inspired them to give thier all,,god bless the south!!”

Other comments followed, debating the cause of the losses:

  • “Unfortunately, according to the museum officials, that is not actually the coat that General Cleburne was wearing when he was killed.”
  • “That’s definitely moth damage from [what] you can see. I’m not sure where he was hit or how many times but none of those holes seem to go through the coat’s inner liner.”
  • “That’s not all moth damage gents. General Cleburne was hit no less than 40 times. Thats right, his body was literally ripped to shreds by Federal musketry and cannister.”
  • “The museum has already said he wasn’t wearing the coat. I suspect if he was in this coat when he was hit 40 times, there might be some BLOOD stains on it. Most of these holes are tiny except for the one on the right hip. Moth holes. If these were canister shot or musket ball holes, the coat would be soaked in blood.”

The photo and subsequent commentary were interesting enough to come to our C2C team’s attention. When the damage to an artifact detracts from the experience of the object’s original form, museum staff often choose to store that piece until conservation can be funded and accomplished. Why did MOC staff decide to exhibit this piece without conservation to camouflage the losses? MOC Curator Cathy Wright explained that staff debated that question at length. They ultimately decided not to conserve the piece because of the tremendous cost, as well as the significant alterations to the original fabric that conservation would involve. They also judged it was important to exhibit the frock coat–one of the few artifacts available to represent the war’s western front.

The MOC’s website contains a brief description of the piece’s provenance and condition.  “This uniform coat was sent to a family friend after Cleburne was killed at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. Thirty years after the event, the donor of the coat found it ‘so dirty and so moth-eaten’ that she ‘hesitated about sending it on to Richmond…’ This is the first time in many years that this unique artifact has been on public display.” This description and the caption beneath the accompanying photo indicate that Cleburne was wearing the coat at the Battle of Franklin.  A museum staff member answering the MOC phone lines explained that the Cleburne was carrying, rather than wearing, the coat into his final battle and the garment fell off into the mud. According to the staffer, the damage, then, resulted from “rot” rather than enemy fire.

In the Facebook discussion quoted above, the damage became the main idea the artifact conveyed, for at least one group of beholders, and it inspired controversy among them. As we’ve written previously, exhibits can and should be forums to present various possible answers to questions that artifacts can pose. The piece’s damage certainly generated interest and discussion, which is a wonderful result of providing access to engaging artifacts. However, in the case of the Cleburne coat, the piece’s condition and its cause(s) dominate any other point the MOC hoped to present, leading to confusion or even misinterpretation.

What do you think? Should the piece be exhibited without conservation? If so, should its display be altered in any way?

Artifact Controversies

Looking for a new way to engage your museum’s participants with its collections? An exhibit called “Controversy” at the Ohio History Center is a model that most history museums could R&D—rip-off and duplicate. Curators displayed objects with little physical or interpretative background. Rather than use a didactic approach to presenting the objects, the exhibit encouraged visitors to the museum to imagine each artifact’s significance, to raise questions, and to share ideas with other participants. Visitors loved the experimental, exploratory tenor of the project. In fact, the show was so successful in its first incarnation, that OHC staff (who recently presented about this exhibit at the AASLH conference) created a sequel, “Controversy 2.”

Most curators and collections managers know of intriguing artifacts that raise more questions than the limited documentation accompanying them can answer. Rather than keeping them locked away in storage because they do not fit neatly into the stories that our institutions have told or want to tell, they can be displayed as conversation starters.


This military helmet (c. 1812-1860), currently on exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of History, offers little interpretive information but suggests many questions. Visitors may ask themselves: What type of hair is it? Why was hair included? Does the form refer to Native American scalping practices in any way or does it follow ancient European traditions? If the exhibition allowed space for feedback methods, then one participant’s questions could provide food for thought for others. Participants could then even generate and share possible answers.

Some especially provocative and emotionally challenging artifacts can also be the most influential and engaging. The strong reactions that some objects elicit can be used as teaching moments. On the Indiana University campus, for instance, in 2002 representatives from the Black Student Union asked the University president to remove one of painter Thomas Hart Benton’s Depression-Era panels from public display. In an assemblage of historical scenes, the painter had included a Klansman with a burning cross to juxtapose Indiana’s past KKK prominence with its recent progress. Some 21st-century students were so upset by the image that they couldn’t concentrate in classes where the panel was on display. Rather than capitulate to demands to move the panel, the university president initiated an interpretive series on the panels for interested students. To read more about that controversy, visit

Could you consider assembling a “Controversy” exhibit at your institution? Which objects would you include?


Would you pay $1.00 to have a temporary emblem of your institution or favorite artifact emblazoned on your arm, ankle, or elsewhere?

 Customized, temporary tattoos could be a great way to share your collection with participants at your cultural heritage institution.  Given the right designs, temporary tattoos are fun for all ages and can be a way for constituents to personalize their visits to your site.   Also, because they are temporary, they are not only painless to apply, but also the wearer does not have to commit to the edginess of permanent body art.

 This idea came up at a thought-provoking session I attended at NCMC this year, led by an Alamance Community College class, about building new audiences for museums.  I remember that another session attendee mentioned her institution had tried this successfully, maybe by bringing in a henna tattoo artist for a special event.  Perhaps an even more affordable idea for your institution and its participants is to invest in small runs of temporary tattoos.  Select several images of architectural elements, art, or artifacts from your institution and upload them to to determine the cost of your potential order. 

 If you order 200 or more of a particular image, the cost will be below one dollar for each tattoo.  An order of 100 will run about $1.40 each, the price increasing as the order numbers decrease, until the charge for a single print is $2.77.  (Shipping is free for orders over $15.00)  While these tattoos would be fun appreciation gifts for staff and volunteers, I expect that many visitors would be willing to buy one for $1.00—if the image was something unique to your site that they felt a connection to or affinity for.  With that potential to recoup the productions costs, even low-budget institutions could afford this program.

 Selecting images that would work for tattoos is probably easier than you think.  Ideas relating to our own Department of Cultural Resources include the state seal, the DCR logo, a dogwood branch, and a cardinal.  The anthemion crown atop the dome of the Old State Capitol would make a cool Celtic-band-type tattoo.  

Of course, there are many other possibilities for DCR and all other cultural heritage institutions throughout the state.  In order to make this activity even more participatory, why not survey visitors and social media “friends” about the images relevant to your institution that they might want as tattoos, before embarking upon production?

 So, consider promoting body art and your collection simultaneously, meanwhile exciting your current audience and reaching out to new ones.