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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?


Knox-Box News

courtesy, Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site

courtesy, Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site

We’ve written about the importance of Knox-Boxes on this blog before and stressed the simplicity and effectiveness of this disaster preparedness step. Contact your local fire department to order and install a Knox-Box. A Knox-Box is a small, wall-mounted safe that holds building keys for fire departments and emergency medical services (and sometimes police) to retrieve in emergency situations. Local fire departments hold master keys to all boxes in their response area so that they can enter a building quickly, without having to force entry. Important information for cultural heritage institutions to stash in their Knox-Boxes include:

  • emergency contact list
  • floor plans showing utility cut-offs
  • list of 5-10 priority artifacts with locations

Several participants in our C2C programs have made progress recently with their Knox-Box implementations. Their news can help motivate other cultural heritage institutions to schedule those regular check-ups with fire fighters. At last month’s Triad Area Cultural Resources Emergency Network (ACREN) meeting, Dale Pennington, Director of Korner’s Folly in Kernersville reported that a regular fire inspection of her institution prompted her to order a Knox-Box for the site and it cost about $250. Firefighters decided that, rather than drill into the historic structure for installation, it would be better to insert the site’s Knox-Box into a metal pole coming out of the ground. This allows them easy access to crucial, site-specific information without compromising the fabric of the unique building.

courtesy, High Point Museum

courtesy, High Point Museum

The High Point Museum already had a Knox-Box before their MayDay preparations motivated them to schedule a pre-plan with their fire department. During the tour of their institution, staff discussed the importance of the museum’s artifact collection and walked firefighters through the storage areas. This collaboration helped firefighters revise the emergency plan for the building and they decided to install a 2nd Knox-Box at the back of the building for quicker access to collections storage. At the end of the pre-plan process, staff members Marian Inabinett and Corinne Midgett enjoyed posing for a group shot with their local firefighters (at right).

Does your institution have a Knox-Box? If not, consider doing contacting your local fire department to begin the ordering process. This small step could be a giant leap for your site’s disaster preparedness.

Happy Holidays from C2C!

We’ve begged for and borrowed the following pix to share holiday cheer (from various North Carolina cultural heritage institutions) with colleagues across the state and others in our national network too. Thanks for following us this year and enjoy your time away from the office. We’ll be back in touch in 2013!

AndyGriffithMuseumThis stunning nighttime scene of the grounds around the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy reminds us of the celebrated North Carolinian’s memorials earlier this year.

RoanokeIFPManteoParadeA boat from the ship, The Elizabeth II, named the “Silver Chalice,” rolled in the Manteo Christmas Parade. The staff of Roanoke Island Festival Park was in high spirits as the event got underway on a beautiful Saturday morning, December 1st.

Palmer-Marsh HouseHistoricHalifaxAutumn fruits beautify traditional Christmas greenery at two of the Coastal Plain’s State Historic Sites, the Palmer Marsh House in Historic Bath (left) and at Historic Halifax (right).

BentonvilleBattlegroundThe tree at Bentonville Battleground’s recreated encampment is grounded in historical documentation of Confederate soldiers decorating their surroundings at Christmastime.

PoeHouseRed and green decorations brighten stately oak woodwork on the mantle and mirror in the sitting room at the 1897 Poe House, part of the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex in Fayetteville.

MaritimeMuseumBeaufortNautically themed ornaments distinguish this tree at the Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

HighPointMuseumThe “Happy Tones” singers from the Culler Senior Center performed at the High Point Museum’s 29th annual Holiday Open House.

WilkesHeritageMuseumPartyFestive decorations and plenty of good food added to the fun at the Wilkes Heritage Museum’s annual holiday open house (right).

CHBSantaCHBcraftA visit with Santa and a make & take ornament craft project made the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum’s event extra special.

Proceed with Caution: Neoprene’s Preservation Prospects

Recently the High Point Museum received a potential donation. “SesquiWhoo” is a large, owl costume, awkwardly shaped for collections storage. In 2009 the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival’s costume designer created the piece to be the mascot suit for High Point’s 150th anniversary. City officials named the character “SesquiWhoo,” a play on the term sesquicentennial. Although SesquiWhoo may be eye-catching and fun in a future exhibit, the costume poses several preservation challenges. In addition to the difficulties that the costume’s size and shape present, its primary material—neoprene—has questionable properties.

Neoprene is a synthetic rubber, now commonly used for both wet suits and laptop covers. Concerned about neoprene’s stability in long-term storage, Museum Registrar, Corinne Midgett, posted a query about neoprene’s preservation prospects on the list-serve for the Registrar’s Committee of AAM. Expert respondents warned that the material would off-gas, emitting acidic or sulfuric vapors that may harm nearby artifacts, as it ages. Additionally, they predicted it would harden over time and loose elasticity and warned that heat and UV radiation could accelerate the material’s deterioration. Storage recommendations included isolation, cold temperatures, and regular changes of packing materials.

The museum plans to proceed with accessioning the costume. Can SesquiWhoo be preserved effectively for perpetuity? Check out its size and shape. What suggestions can you make to support this piece in storage? Short of buying a large refrigerator unit, what strategies can High Point Museum staff use to isolate and chill this piece?

Thanks to Corinne Midgett for the inspiration and information to create this post.